McCullers takes impressive curve into G3 start

Right-hander was unbeaten in nine starts at Minute Maid Park in 2017

October 25th, 2017

HOUSTON -- A smile curled across 's lips when asked for the umpteenth time about throwing two dozen consecutive curveballs in a playoff game. Back in high school, the hard-throwing McCullers joked that he would have been more likely to have thrown 24 straight heaters.

The curve did not enter McCullers' consciousness to a significant extent until Geoff Goetz, his high school pitching coach and a former first-round Draft pick, taught him his grip -- middle finger aligned with the baseball's seam, index finger knuckled over the top. It is that grip that McCullers will use tonight as he looks to give the Astros an advantage in the World Series, starting Game 3 after his teammates roared from behind to take Game 2, 7-6, in 11 innings at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.

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"As time moved on, I've learned to pitch better with that pitch," McCullers said of his curveball. "Obviously the numbers have climbed. But I don't view it as an offspeed pitch. I just view it as another one of my weapons that I can use to get people out."

If the baseball world remained unaware of McCullers' knuckle-curve, he made it plain to see in his last postseason outing: a four-inning save in American League Championship Series Game 7 presented by Camping World. Throwing 24 straight curves during that relief appearance, McCullers struck out six, bedeviling a Yankees team that swung and missed on 10 of his 41 total breaking pitches.

Houston's supplemental-round Draft pick in 2012, McCullers has always thrown hard, though he now relies more on his primary offspeed pitch than he does his mid-90s fastball. Opponents hit just .140 with a .194 slugging percentage against McCullers' knuckle-curve this season, putting it alongside 's curveball, 's slider and Max Scherzer's changeup as one of the game's more difficult secondary pitches to hit.

Only Cleveland's and Arizona's generated more swings and misses with their curveballs this season, and those two threw significantly more innings than McCullers.

"The ability to spin the baseball like Lance … certain guys have that really good breaking ball," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "There's certainly a place for that when you're working front to back and also up to down."

Though McCullers considers his curveball a low-stress pitch, injuries were his main concern in 2017. A lower back issue resulted in two trips to the disabled list for the right-hander, who also missed time in September due to arm fatigue. He wound up throwing just 118 2/3 innings during the regular season, struggling in particular during the brief stretch between DL stints. Take out those six starts, and McCullers was 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA.

As it was, McCullers finished the season 7-4 with a 4.25 mark, then posted a 2.08 ERA over the first two rounds of the postseason.

"He's a confident kid," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He believes in his best stuff matched up against the best stuff of the other guy, that he's going to be better. … He's got just enough cockiness to him that is attractive as a competitor. And he wants the ball. He wants to finish. If you ask him, 'What are you going to do tomorrow?' He's going to say, 'I'm going to throw nine scoreless.' And he believes it."

The Astros don't need nine scoreless from McCullers tonight. They just want him to keep it close against . Like many of his Astros teammates, McCullers has not faced the Dodgers since 2015, when their lineup was significantly different than it is today. He has no history against , or Chris Taylor, three cogs of Los Angeles' World Series lineup.

But McCullers has plenty of history at Minute Maid Park, where he did not lose a game in nine starts this season and where the Astros are 6-0 in the postseason.

McCullers may line up to start a potential winner-take-all Game 7 in Los Angeles, which is part of the reason why Hinch slotted him over Charlie Morton tonight.

"I've got to focus on Game 3," McCullers said. "But I'm not going to lie and say I haven't thought about a possible Game 7."