LOS ANGELES -- It wasn’t Game 7 of the World Series, though at times it had the feel. The Astros’ long-awaited return to a packed Dodger Stadium was dripping with drama and tension, and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. was more than happy to play the role of villain.
McCullers delivered one of the most clutch performances of his career by holding the Dodgers to four singles while striking out nine batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings to lead the Astros to a scintillating 3-0 win Tuesday night before 52,692 fans -- the biggest crowd to watch a Major League game this season.
“I enjoy pitching in games like this and environments like this,” McCullers said. “It’s probably the most fun I've had pitching in quite a long time. Just wanted to go out there and give it a best effort for the guys. We’re trying to win ballgames, trying to stay ahead in our division.”
The Astros, playing at Dodger Stadium with fans in the stands for the first time since the sign-stealing scandal broke after the 2019 season, were showered with loud boos from the moment they stepped onto the field. Later, multiple inflatable trash cans and baseballs were thrown on the field, though not at the players directly.
“It was kind of wild,” said reliever Ryne Stanek, who got the save. “It was maybe the sixth or seventh inning, things got a little bit hectic in the bullpen. People started throwing stuff at Astros fans and stuff and for a few minutes you basically sat there and watched people throw full beers at people for half an inning. … It was kind of a bonkers atmosphere to play, for sure.”
McCullers, who started Game 7 of the World Series in 2017 at Dodger Stadium, kept the Dodgers -- and the crowd -- in check with a masterful performance.
“I enjoyed the reception on the way out to the ‘pen,” McCullers said of the boos. “I felt comfortable, felt calm. We had a lot of people here.”
Then it was slugger Yordan Alvarez -- traded from the Dodgers to the Astros in 2016 -- stealing the show with a two-run homer off lefty Victor González that was 115.1 mph off the bat. That put Houston ahead, 3-0, and began to send the huge crowd to the exits in the eighth inning.
“That gave us a little breathing room,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Especially when you score late like that in a close game. And then you start counting the outs after that. When he hit that homer in the eighth, then you realize, ‘OK, boys, six more outs and we can go to the barn.’ That’s what we did.”
McCullers relied mostly on his sinker (42 percent) and his slider (41 percent), which combined for 19 of his 20 called strikes.
“When you’re effective with your fastball and you’re getting ahead of hitters, it makes everything else better,” Baker said. “You see how many called strikes that he had? That sinker was darting mostly into the strike zone and on the corners. He was dealing tonight. It was fun to watch him pitch.”
McCullers said he told catcher Martín Maldonado he wanted to be in attack mode, put the Dodgers on their heels and overwhelm them.
“A big part of his job is to kind of be able to dissect what I’m throwing best right now,” McCullers said. “When I was facing Bellinger with guys on base [in the fourth], I wanted to go to the breaking ball. He came out and talked to me and said, ‘Bro, your two-seamer’s great. You’ve got to trust it here.’ We got the popup, which was a big out that inning.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts agreed.
“I thought Maldonado did a really nice job with him using a couple different breaking balls,” he said. “The fastball was 92-93 and then he could get it to 96-97. I just thought he did a great job of mixing tonight and we couldn't put anything together."
Houston’s revamped bullpen, which was without All-Star closer Ryan Pressly (paternity leave), shut the door. There was no bigger out than lefty Blake Taylor closing the seventh after falling behind to Max Muncy, 3-0, then coming back with a strikeout to strand two on base. Taylor said it was one of the biggest at-bats of his career so far.
“It takes a special player to put an Astros jersey on,” he said. “If you’re not willing to withstand the craziness you’re going to get every time you walk onto the field, if you can’t handle it, it’s a tough gig. We’re going to go out there and have each other’s backs.”