After missing the entire 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said he will be able to look at his season totals from this year and take pride in his body of work. That work might not be done, though.
McCullers, making his final regular-season start, threw four scoreless innings and struck out a season-high nine batters in the Astros’ 6-1 loss to the Rangers on Saturday night at Globe Life Field. McCullers is expected to start a possible Game 3 in next week’s Wild Card Series and would do so on a roll.
“McCullers was great,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He had it going on. He was throwing strikes, got some big strikeouts when he needed it. He’s ready. Like I said, this was a tuneup for him. We didn’t want to take him too deep into the game, but we wanted him to get some work, and he did. And it was quality work.”
McCullers went 3-3 with a 3.93 ERA in 11 starts in 2020, including a 2.18 ERA and an 0.94 WHIP in his final eight. That includes a start Sept. 4 against the Angels in which he didn’t record an out while dealing with neck nerve irritation that landed him on the injured list.
In his final three starts of the season -- all since coming off the IL -- McCullers didn’t allow an earned run, walked four and gave up seven hits while striking out 24 batters in 17 2/3 innings. Alas, the Astros didn’t score a run while he was on the mound in that stretch.
“Damn proud of myself,” McCullers said. “We can’t take away games or innings, but you want to look at the large sample size. You subtract a 30-minute hump in early August [when he gave up eight runs in 3 2/3 innings on Aug. 5 in Arizona], I’m rocking a sub-3.00 [ERA].
“My last seven, eight starts, I think, indicate the pitcher who I am. I was 20-plus months without game activity coming from a really tough injury. After the couple of starts in, they were a little bit slow, but after that third start, I really kind of settled in. That eight-start sample size is an indication of the pitcher I am. I’m really proud of myself this season.”
McCullers worked on a cutter throughout the season and broke it out towards the end of the schedule, while going back to using a curveball-heavy arsenal and moving away from the changeup. He threw curveballs 51 percent of the time on Saturday -- and only one changeup -- getting three strikeouts on the cutter. The pitch gives him more options, he said.
“When you’re facing big league lineups, especially multiple times, the information that these teams have, I mean, they know everything about you,” McCullers said. “Being able to add a wrinkle here and there is important, and I was working on it through the season. We were a little bit strategical. We wanted to introduce it in September to add a little wrinkle to my game. Part of this year is building for who you want to be in the future. This year is [messed up]. I’m happy I’ve been able to use it and use it effectively.”
McCullers last pitched in the postseason in relief in 2018, after he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament and before he underwent surgery. Baker said on Saturday that McCullers is in line to start a possible Game 3 on Thursday, but the Astros will definitely need him to continue his good run if they’re to make an improbable run to a second consecutive American League pennant.
“I’ve had a lot of great moments in this Astros hat, in my Astros uni,” McCullers said. “I’m proud to be part of the group that has rejuvenated the fans, has been part of the group that was drafted here, part of the 100-loss season and came up into the big leagues and for the most part have pitched well, even though I’ve pitched through a lot of injuries.
“I’ve pitched well and been a key member of a lot of great moments. Fourth straight year of going to the postseason is no joke. That’s something to be proud of, but we have to put it together a little better in the postseason this year.”