WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Like everybody else in camp, Astros manager Dusty Baker is full of anticipation for right-hander Lance McCullers Jr.'s Grapefruit League debut on Sunday against the Cardinals. McCullers is returning from Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2019 season.
“The main thing is we’ve got to calm him down,” Baker said. “He’ll probably be begging or lobby for more than one [inning].”
McCullers, who underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2018 after pitching through the injury in the playoffs, was given a complete bill of health late last year and is using Spring Training as a rehab assignment. He will be Houston’s third starter behind 2019 American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
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 2016 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 he was headed for Tommy John surgery eventually, and that became a reality when he tore his UCL at Dodger Stadium in August 2018.
“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,” McCullers said when he reported to camp.
Solid pitching in loss
Baker was thrilled with the club’s pitching for the first eight innings in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Mets, who scored a pair in the ninth off Ralph Garza. Prior to that, Framber Valdez (2 2/3 innings), Chris Devenski (1 1/3 innings), Bryan Abreu (2 2/3 innings) and Blake Taylor (1 1/3 innings) combined for eight scoreless innings, allowing four hits while striking out 12.
Valdez, who’s battling for the fifth starter spot with Austin Pruitt and Josh James, walked a pair of batters but struck out four. Devenski struck out two batters while allowing a hit, and Abreu matched Valdez with four strikeouts and two walks. Taylor, who was acquired from the Mets in December in the Jake Marisnick trade, faced his former organization and struck out two batters.
“I felt good today -- the changeup and the sinker, especially,” said Valdez, who threw 50 pitches, 31 for strikes. “My command is feeling pretty good.”
Baker told Valdez earlier in the spring to take a page from former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s routine and step off the mound and slow things down when he gets into a jam. Valdez said he’s been focused on picking up his intensity in those situations.
“When [Valenzuela] first came up, he would call a time out and back off the mound until he got his act back together,” Baker said. “Especially with the rules now of only five [mound] visits, you kind of don’t want to burn one too early or whatever. A lot of it is going to be on him and the catcher to call a timeout or just don’t give him the ball back. Let him regroup and regather himself and let him go back to pitching.”
McCullers, who missed all of the 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, will start Sunday’s 12:05 p.m. CT game against the Cardinals at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in his first game action since the 2018 playoffs. Lefty Austin Gomber will start for the Cardinals.