Lance McCullers Jr. is a max effort, never-wants-to-leave-the-game pitcher. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Astros are experts at spraying champagne in October. And Lance McCullers Jr. has been at the heart of several of the biggest moments. (@Astros)
Lance & Kara McCullers at the Houston Astros Team Up event at Tootsies (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)
Trey Mancini can be a lineup lengthening bat for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. is on the 60 day injured list, but he still received plenty of love from Astros fans on ring night. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros manager Dusty Baker is already ready to give someone like Kyle Tucker knuckles. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros general Manager James Click made three trades. Should he have made more? (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. pitches with determination for the Astros. That's something his dad appreciates. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. is embracing the role of a staff ace for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Christian Vazquez seems to relish big moments at the plate. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers at the Houston Astros Team Up event at Tootsies (Photo by Jacob Power)
Trey Mancini is already getting help and tips from Houston Astros like Justin Verlander. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. is one of the core Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker gives the Astros an important weapon. One who never seems to be fazed by anything. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. carries his beyond cute 2-year-old daughter Ava Rae into the Houston Astros clubhouse in his arms. McCullers is finished with all his obligations for the night, pitching and media wise, and it’s time for a little father-daughter time. The heartwarming scene is a reminder of how far McCullers has come in Houston.
From a 21-year-old newcomer to the city who made his debut on that breakthrough 2015 Astros playoff team. To the 28-year-old dad and husband who is working to reclaim the ace pitching form he displayed last season.
This night seems like another nice step in that direction. McCullers strikes out 11 — the most Ks he’s racked up in a game since 2018 — and puts together six innings of two run ball in the Astros’ eventual 5-2 win over the Oakland A’s. Only, McCullers is not nearly as impressed with it as almost everyone else seems to be.
In fact, McCullers wants more.
“I think younger me would be happy with six (innings) and two (runs) and 11 punch outs,” McCullers says when I ask him if he appreciates these moments more now. “And older me’s a little frustrated by that fourth (inning). A couple of batters that got away from me.”
Yes, McCullers is demanding more of himself, pushing for more from himself, after an 11 strikeout game. One in which he showed how many different pitches he has to choose from. Good pitches. This should alarm the rest of baseball like the most blaring early warming system.
For these now 44 games over .500 (94-50) Astros already have two aces who keep seeming to raise their games in Justin Verlander (who returns to the rotation Friday night) and Framber Valdez. Now McCullers, in only his sixth start since coming back from the forearm injury that ended his postseason early last October, is already expecting more of himself.
When is six innings, two runs allowed and 11 strikeouts not enough? When you’re a 28-year-old with ace-worthy stuff who knows it could be better.
McCullers looks at the fourth inning when he walked two to help the offensively-challenged A’s score those two runs as something he could have prevented. The fourth inning annoys McCullers. So how does he respond?
He comes back out and retires Oakland in order in both the fifth and sixth innings, striking out three of the last four batters he faces.
“I told Josh Miller, our pitching coach, that’s probably the most I’ve had late into a game and into a pitch count,” McCullers says after a 99 pitch night. “It felt like my best stuff probably in that fifth and sixth inning overall. It’s good to see that.
“It’s good to feel that way when you get deep into a ballgame.”
The Astros are certainly treating McCullers like he’s stronger. On this night, he is sent back out for the sixth inning despite having thrown 84 pitches through five frames. The sixth turns into one of his most efficient innings — a one, two, three display of dominance.
It’s a comforting feeling for McCullers’ Astros teammates who know that this team is already playing to be at its best in October at this point. And the Astros at their best include a dominant Lance McCullers.
“I mean he’s unbelievable,” Aledmys Diaz, the Astros super utility man who starts at second base and hits the go-ahead homer this night, says of McCullers. “When he’s throwing it where he wants to, best in the league. He’s a lot of fun to play behind.”
Lance McCullers Recognizes the Moment
If McCullers can be the Lance McCullers of last season, the Astros will go into the playoffs with three legitimate aces. Verlander. Valdez. McCullers. That would be a frontline pitching flex that even the Los Angeles Dodgers would have a tough time matching. With Cristian Javier’s no-hit and strikeout prowess, Jose Urquidy’s penchant for winning, Hunter Brown’s crazy good stuff and Luis Garcia’s lively fastball waiting in the wings.
You could argue that this will be the best pitching staff that the Astros take into a postseason in this golden age of Houston baseball. Even better than the 2019 staff fronted by the two dominant aces of Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
McCullers is still a big difference maker for these Astros.
“He’s throwing the ball well,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says. “. . . He’s throwing good. He’s throwing real good.”
Excuse the already searching Yankees if they feel like the My Pillow Guy at a Hardee’s facing the FBI on hearing this. The presumably second best team in the American League had trouble standing up to Houston even without McCullers in the picture.
Now, there’s a new nightmare.
“I think younger me would be happy with six (innings) and two (runs) and 11 punch outs. And older me’s a little frustrated by that fourth (inning).” — Lance McCullers Jr.
McCullers strikes out seven in the first three innings, using every one of his pitches to leave the A’s swinging at air. Or just catch them staring at the plate as a cutter dances in. It is his most overpowering stuff since his return in mid August.
There is another potential ace back in the mix, getting more and more comfortable — and demanding — of himself.
“I’m just grateful to be back playing and part of the team,” McCullers says. “And I want to be there in October and hopefully into November. And be a productive part of this clubhouse.”
If this is the older Lance McCullers, the Astros should be all in. He still has the elite stuff. But he’s demanding much more.