Close calls sting McCullers, Astros

September 24th, 2021

ANAHEIM -- The frustration oozed from Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.’s pores, overtaking his thoughts on a night he could have been celebrating a good performance. The object of his irritation was his 86th pitch of the game, a 3-2 slider to Shohei Ohtani in the sixth inning that was called a ball when it appeared to be in the zone for the second out of the inning.

What followed only added to McCullers’ annoyance, with Ohtani stealing second base -- the Astros challenged, believing shortstop Carlos Correa had tagged him out -- and a two-out walk to Jared Walsh, which set up former Astros teammate Jack Mayfield to play the hero.

Mayfield drilled a two-run double to left field to score Ohtani and Walsh to break a tie and send the Angels to a 3-2 win over the Astros, whose bid to clinch the American League West title hit the pause button at Angel Stadium.

“I think if you guys are asking, you know the deal with that,” McCullers said. “Not only that, but he was clearly out at second. So when the game is affected by guys who are not playing, it sucks.”

The Astros’ magic number remained at three, with the second-place Mariners finishing off a four-game sweep of the A’s to get within seven games of Houston. That means the earliest the Astros can clinch the division is Saturday in Oakland.

“It’s outside of what we can control, and that’s what we’re focused on,” said Astros catcher Jason Castro, who belted a pinch-hit homer in the ninth inning that cut the lead to 3-2.

McCullers worked six innings, allowing three runs on only two hits. McCullers walked four batters and struck out five before exiting with 101 pitches thrown (61 strikes). He’s allowed three runs or fewer in 22 of his last 27 outings.

“I gave up two hits and maybe another ball hit hard,” he said. “I walked a couple of guys to start some innings there. You try to do a better job with that, but overall it was a great night stuff-wise. Still a quality start. I just felt like I earned more, and I felt like the team earned more than that. It was a great series win and we move on to Oakland.”

Still, Astros manager Dusty Baker thought McCullers -- his likely Game 1 starter in the playoffs -- threw the ball great, relying on his bread-and-butter curveball, which he threw 43 times.

“Hey, man, he was awesome,” Baker said. “Everybody was upset that we thought that pitch on Ohtani was a strike. That would have gotten us out of the inning, and then he stole second base and it appeared we had him. Carlos made a heck of a tag and it looked like he was out there, too. It was tough when you’re having extra guys, and then Jack Mayfield, who hurt us all series and even last night, that set the stage for his double.”