HOUSTON -- The Astros got a glimpse at what Lance McCullers can do in the playoffs two years ago when he pitched well against the Royals in the American League Division Series. That's why they're making every attempt to get the 23-year-old in position to compete in this year's ALDS.
McCullers, pitching for the first time in 18 days and only second time since July 30, gave up two runs and four hits in 3 1/3 innings before being pulled after throwing only 63 pitches in Sunday's 7-5 loss to the Angels, which was near his predetermined pitch count. Most important for McCullers is that he said he felt great after being scratched from his previous start with arm fatigue Sept. 13.
"The part about it is my last start in Seattle [Sept. 6] and this start tonight, I had pretty strict pitch counts," he said. "I'm not upset. I understand the pitch counts. I feel good. I feel like I could put up some really quality starts. I've been cut off early, obviously, because I came off the DL and had a long stint [off]. I felt really good ... my body feels the best I could have expected to feel."
McCullers went 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 16 starts in the first half of the season en route to being named to his first All-Star Game. He was 0-2 with a 9.64 ERA in four July starts before going on the DL with back discomfort. McCullers will have one more start later this week in Boston to show off his stuff to the Astros, whose playoff rotation alignment hinges on McCullers.
"I think competition kind of brings the best out of everyone," McCullers said. "With all that being said, there's going to be guys that don't pitch that deserve it. There's going to be guys left off the [playoff] roster that deserve to play, but we have a great team here. The reality of it is I think when I'm healthy, I've got top-of-the-line stuff. … I'm hoping I get that opportunity because I know what I can bring."
With a week left in the regular season, Justin Verlander (14-8, 3.38 ERA) and Dallas Keuchel (13-5, 2.96 ERA) are locks at the top of the Astros' playoff rotation. Brad Peacock (12-2, 2.09 ERA) has likely worked his way into a starting spot, leaving McCullers (7-3, 4.01 ERA), Charlie Morton (13-7, 3.63 ERA) and Collin McHugh (3-2, 3.44 ERA) vying for the final spot in the ALDS rotation.
"I'd rather have too many than too little, and I think our guys are doing a good job stepping up and competing," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I've always asked our guys to make it as hard on me as possible, whether it's playing time or rotation spots or roles or whatever. These guys are doing it. I see it differently. We can't make a bad decision. We've got options that are all good. There's not a bad decision in there to make."
McCullers understands the team gave him as much rest as possible in the second half with the prospect of having him ready for October. He'll be up for the challenge, he says.
"I was out there before a couple of years ago and know what it feels like, I know what it takes to pitch there," he said. "I'm confident that I'm going to be ready to go."