McCullers lands among exclusive company
Blyleven, Gooden, Wood only pitchers as young to fan at least 10 and walk none in complete game
HOUSTON -- With two outs in the ninth inning of the Astros' 3-1 victory on Wednesday, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones poked a single to shallow right field, sending Astros manager A.J. Hinch up the steps of the dugout and to the mound.
His pitcher, rookie Lance McCullers, was making just his fourth big league start.
Chris Davis was in the box representing the potential tying run, unsure whether he'd face a 21-year-old trying to finish a complete game or right-hander Luke Gregerson, who was warming up in the Houston bullpen.
"'Davis is your guy,'" Hinch said he told McCullers. "'This is your game, this is your guy, get him right here.'
"I wanted him to shake hands after that at-bat," Hinch said of the mound visit. "He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'I'm good to go.'"
McCullers needed just four pitches to finish the Astros' win, punching out Davis on a 12-6 curveball for his career-high 11th strikeout and first complete game since a seven-inning job in high school.
In the past 50 seasons, the only pitchers as young as McCullers to go the distance, fanning more than 10 and walking none, are Bert Blyleven, Dwight Gooden and Kerry Wood.
McCullers, who went to only three three-ball counts all night, worked ahead of most of the hitters and remedied the problem with inflated pitch counts that plagued his first three starts.
He entered the ninth with only 92 pitches thrown, thanks in large part to a five-pitch seventh and 10-pitch eighth in which the Orioles' aggression at the plate was as much a factor as the plan between McCullers and catcher Jason Castro.
"Just pound the zone early," McCullers said. "They started getting pretty aggressive. Castro and I talked and tried to use that to our advantage. Whatever pitch I throw, try to throw it for a strike. Let them kind of, you know, force the pace of the game."
"Mixing speeds and locating with his fastball," Castro added. "Getting ahead when he needed to with his breaking stuff, which allowed him to take advantage of some of their aggressiveness and keep his pitch count down."
McCullers allowed only Jones' single after the fourth inning and retired 16 of the final 17 batters he faced.
A power arm who usually sits mid-90s late into the game, McCullers hit 96 mph on the Minute Maid Park radar gun with his 100th pitch.
But it was the offspeed pitches that carried him through the final inning, including the final at-bat against Davis, during which four of the five pitches were offspeed.
"He showed them all tonight and was in command of the baseball," Hinch said. "It was nice for him. ... When he gets ahead, it's very, very difficult to pick how he's going to attack you to finish you, but he finished hitters very well."
With Scott Feldman still out until July and uncertainty surrounding the back half of the rotation, Hinch was asked if McCullers' outing further stakes his claim to a more solidified spot.
"There's an approach that is impressive for a brand-new guy at this level and a 21-year-old that looks like he's in total control of the game," Hinch said. "I think he sees the opportunity as what it is and is definitely making a case to take it."