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After final tuneup, McCullers game-ready

Pitcher fine-tuning changeup during simulated innings
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In what was his final tuneup before making his Grapefruit League debut next week, Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. threw 43 pitches in a simulated game Saturday on a back field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and proclaimed himself game-ready.

McCullers, who's been eased into his throwing program this spring after missing the final two months of the 2016 season with an elbow sprain, simulated three innings against hitters Alex Bregman, Juan Centeno, Jake Marisnick and Garrett Stubbs. He pitched to counts, out of the stretch and from his full windup, and he sat down between innings in order to replicate game action as closely as he could. Astros manager A.J. Hinch -- who on Sunday morning said McCullers would make his first spring start Thursday vs. the Cardinals -- and general manager Jeff Luhnow were on hand to watch McCullers throw.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In what was his final tuneup before making his Grapefruit League debut next week, Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. threw 43 pitches in a simulated game Saturday on a back field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and proclaimed himself game-ready.

McCullers, who's been eased into his throwing program this spring after missing the final two months of the 2016 season with an elbow sprain, simulated three innings against hitters Alex Bregman, Juan Centeno, Jake Marisnick and Garrett Stubbs. He pitched to counts, out of the stretch and from his full windup, and he sat down between innings in order to replicate game action as closely as he could. Astros manager A.J. Hinch -- who on Sunday morning said McCullers would make his first spring start Thursday vs. the Cardinals -- and general manager Jeff Luhnow were on hand to watch McCullers throw.

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"It went well. I'm feeling good," McCullers said. "I'm feeling better and better each time I go out, as far as my ability to make pitches. I challenged myself a little bit today to be more game-like. We did counts, windup and stretch versus how the at-bat went, so I felt good today."

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The next step for McCullers would be to get into a game. Pitching Thursday still leave McCullers enough time to pitch in four games prior to the start of the regular season.

"I knew [I was] healthy coming into spring," McCullers said. "It wasn't, 'Am I healthy, am I not healthy?' … You've thrown [bullpen sessions], you've worked hard and put in all the work in. But to get out there and throw in games and throw a mid-week 'pen, get my workout schedule under control and be able to bounce back week in and week out and feel pretty good about my body, it's encouraging because you never know until you get here. I'm glad it's gone well."

McCullers threw fastballs, sinkers, curveballs and some changeups, which is a key pitch for him. He said his fastball was clocked at 95 mph.

"I thought Lance threw the ball very well," Hinch said. "Pulling the cage back, taking the tarp off the field, having just him and the hitter on the field brought a little bit higher intensity, and I thought he dialed it up a little bit. I think his confidence is starting to grow, and he's ready to continue his progress and take the next step in the Spring Training mode."

McCullers relies primarily on his fastball and curveball, and he is still getting a feel for the changeup, which he can throw in the upper 80s.

"I'm expecting myself to work on those things while being sharp as well, because that's the kind of competitor I am," McCullers said. "Me going out there and throwing changeups and being bad isn't OK with me. I'm going to throw it and expect to be good."

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

Houston Astros, Lance McCullers Jr.