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McCullers reinvigorated by clean slate in 2020

@brianmctaggart
February 14, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A grueling year of rehabilitation from right elbow surgery that cost him the entire 2019 season ended on a major high for Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. when he and his wife, Kara, had their first child. If ever there was a time to reassess

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A grueling year of rehabilitation from right elbow surgery that cost him the entire 2019 season ended on a major high for Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. when he and his wife, Kara, had their first child. If ever there was a time to reassess what’s important in life, this was probably it.

McCullers, who underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2018 and sat idle while the Astros won the American League pennant last year, decided to step back from his high-profile presence on social media and limit how much time he spends in front of a screen playing video games. Family and baseball were more important than ever.

“The things you did before, you felt you wanted to do, have just kind of faded,” he said.

With a clear head, healed elbow and healthy baby girl, McCullers took the mound Friday and threw his first bullpen session of the spring without incident. It was a major step towards getting back into a game for the first time since he pitched with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the 2018 ALCS against the Red Sox.

“I feel like I’ve put in a lot of hard work over this past 15, 16 months,” he said. “I’ve come a long way, not only physically, but also mentally and just kind of where I’m at and moving to the season. I’m excited to get going again, obviously. I’ve had to wait a long time. It felt like a lifetime but here we are, and I'm very excited to just be able to contribute again to the team and not only run to the clubhouse and get waters and bananas and stuff like that.”

The return of McCullers, 26, coincides with the departure of pitcher Gerrit Cole, who finished second to teammate Justin Verlander in the AL Cy Young race last year and signed with the Yankees in December. McCullers, who’s yet to make more than 22 starts in a season in the Major Leagues, admits that no one can replace Cole.

“Gerrit was an amazing acquisition, obviously,” he said. “He was an amazing teammate and he pitched his heart out for this team and the city for the two years he was here. You can’t worry about replacing that. I have to go out and be the version of myself I’ve been working towards.”

McCullers has shown flashes of brilliance in his career -- he went 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA in his first 15 starts in 2017 and made the All-Star team -- but injuries have derailed him. He came into the ‘16 season with a shoulder injury and changed his mechanics to alleviate the pain. That ultimately led to him spraining his UCL that season. He knew that he was headed for Tommy John surgery eventually, and that became a reality when he tore his UCL at Dodger Stadium in August 2018.

“Obviously, it was a difficult process and I had to come to terms with a lot of things,” he said. “I had to come to terms with the fact I was really rehabbing for my career at a young age. I was going to sit out the whole year and still find ways to be positive and supportive for my teammates and be there for them as well. It was a good year for me. Obviously, I [wanted] to play. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, but I still made the best out of it and grew as much as I could.”

While the Astros were playing the Nationals in the World Series, McCullers was traveling back and forth between Houston and West Palm Beach while rehabbing. He’s in spring camp on a regular pitching routine like everyone else.

“I’m a normal guy,” he said.

Still, how much McCullers can contribute in 2020 remains to be seen. The Astros don’t know what, if any, kind of innings limit he will be on this season. McCullers doesn’t want to think about any kind of restrictions after not pitching at all for an entire season.

“I’m looking forward to being someone that all these guys can count on to go out there and give them the effort that we deserve,” he said.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.