HOUSTON -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch didn't tip his hand either way before the biggest game of his managerial career on Saturday, choosing instead to stick to the "all hands on deck" pitching mantra a lot of managers follow when their team is about to play a win-or-go-home postseason game.
• Dress for the World Series: Get AL champs gear
But Hinch had a hunch of how Game 7 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World -- a 4-0 Astros win -- was going to play out. He had not one pitcher but two whom he knew for sure he was going to call upon, even before the game started.
:: ALCS schedule and coverage ::
One, obviously, was starter Charlie Morton. The other was Lance McCullers, who was given a specific directive from Hinch soon after Game 6 had ended.
McCullers had just pulled into his driveway after Friday's game when his phone buzzed. It was Hinch, who had a message for the young right-hander: You're pitching in Game 7, and expect to stay in for a while.
"He said, 'Hey, I know you wanted to start the game,'" McCullers recalled. "'But when you get the ball out of the 'pen, expect to keep it and finish the game.' And that was my mentality."
McCullers followed Morton, who delivered five shutout innings, yielding two hits and striking out five. The Astros had scored three runs in the bottom of Morton's final inning to extend their lead to 4-0, but given the struggles of Houston's bullpen throughout the postseason, piecing together the rest of the game with an assortment of relievers perhaps wasn't the best idea.
McCullers, who was dominant at times during the regular season but also frustratingly vulnerable when injuries set in, was arguably the best option. And maybe the only option, given the Astros' need to protect a four-run lead in order to clinch the AL pennant.
McCullers delivered, relying on his signature curveball to guide him through the remaining four innings. In fact, Yankees hitters saw few pitches other than the curveball -- out of 54 pitches McCullers threw, 41 were curveballs, including every one of his final 24 offerings.
McCullers got 10 swinging strikes, five called strikes and all six of his strikeouts on the curve, which averaged 87.3 mph, right around his season average.
"I know that he has a lot of confidence in that pitch," said catcher Brian McCann. "He had the feel for it. Once he had that feel for it, that was it. It's one of the best pitches in baseball, it's one of the best pitches you're going to see. That pitch and his competitiveness, he was finishing that up."
At no time did McCullers give Hinch any reason to lift him, or even talk to him about how the outing was progressing. Between innings, there was little to no discussion between the two.
"I wasn't even going to give A.J. the opportunity to tell me, 'Hey, this, that ... How you feeling?'" McCullers said. "Nothing. I just walked by him -- 'I'm good to go.'"
Over the four innings, McCullers gave up only one hit and one walk.
"His killer instincts, his feel for the moment is pretty impressive," Hinch said.