Astros’ Lance McCullers Jr. emerges as a true playoff ace

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HOUSTON – Lance McCullers Jr. is presenting what MacGyver is to gadgets. His mind is still restless. He is always looking for ways to escape traffic jams, or even avoid them altogether. McCullers had another MacGyver moment last year after the Rays ‘Manuel Margot and Mike Zunino smashed his signature throw, the Knuckle Curve, for home runs in the American League Championship Series, where the Astros’ season s ‘is finished.

“I was like, you know what i really feel like i need something else“, says McCullers.

He needed a pitch with a different shape, especially to show off right-handed hitters, in addition to his curveball, lead, and shift, all of which work with a downward orientation. He spoke to Houston pitching coaches Brent Strom and Joshua Miller. They decided the slider was the answer, the safety pin to use urgently this time.

The next step was to talk to former teammate Collin McHugh, the spin guru.

“If you want to know all about the spin, there’s no one better,” says Strom.

McCullers didn’t want a cursor. He wanted one with an equatorial rotation, one that came out of his hand with an axis of rotation from three o’clock to nine o’clock on the face of a clock. He would move away from the right-handers with a vicious horizontal break; the vertical break is cursed. Presto! The launcher that hadn’t launched a cursor before suddenly had one of the nastiest cursors in the game.

Ask the White Sox.

The White Sox roster, heavy on the right, again fell short of McCullers and his MacGyver number, not with those sliders pulling away from them. And when they started looking for them, the McCullers gave them pellets and hammered them into the ground. Until the seventh inning, when they touched him for two singles, the White Sox were 0 for 19 against his new toy in three starts this year.

McCullers hosted a clinic pitch on Thursday in Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series, which the Astros won 6-1. He carried the ball until the seventh inning, allowing no points and, for the first time this year, not allowing any walks.

“There really was no game plan,” said McCullers. “[Catcher] Martin [Maldonado] and I just spoke before the game about throwing my shots in the zone.

Nine years after being noticed posting a 0.18 ERA in high school, four years after throwing 24 straight curve balls against the Yankees to shut down the ALCS and three years after Tommy John’s surgery, McCullers arrived as as a full-fledged launcher.

On the eve of Thursday’s game, McCullers said: “I feel like this is the start I’ve been waiting for three years – all the work coming back from Tommy John’s surgery was for a start like this – this.”

How extraordinary was his debut? McCullers became only the sixth American League starter to win Game 1 of a non-running or walking post-season series, joining Corey Kluber (2016 World Series), Josh Beckett (ALDS 2007), Mike Mussina (ALDS 2005), Scott Erickson (1997 ALCS) and Carl Mays (1921 World Series).

“To be honest, I expected him to come out and throw that way,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said.

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Where he drafted behind pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, McCullers became the Houston staff ace. His weapons are as numerous as they are impressive. His change is so nasty (also with side rotation) and gets swings so funky that he calls it “the UFO”. His slider (.149) and curved ball (.150) are among the 10 hardest breaking pitches to hit among all starting pitchers. Its ballast averages 94 mph, and it can dial it up to 97.

The curved ball is so reliable that McCullers doesn’t bother toss it in reliever box sessions or pre-innings warm-ups, not even with a week between starts like he did in Game 1.

“Not out of the mound,” he said. “I played wrestling with a softball and interrupted a few.”

A soft ball?

“Yes,” he explains. “I feel like a baseball is too easy to handle with spin. Spinning a softball really makes you focus on throwing the curve the right way to spin it. This is something I learned at the age of 13 from my pitching coach. It was the same thing he did with [the late] José Fernandez. Spin your curve ball with a soft ball to really get the right spin.

“Lance,” said Strom, “has a very active mind. All encounters with him are alike. ‘And that? What about that? What if I tunnel this or show that to the batter. The encounters all end the same? I said, ‘Throw, when you’re in trouble, throw your damn curved ball.’ “

McCullers is in his way the toughest pitcher in the league. He allowed the fewest hits per nine innings and the fewest homers per nine innings while going 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA. The only hit on McCullers is that he tinkers so much with his throwing gadget box that he loses the strike zone. He led the league in the marches, a notoriety that shouldn’t come with his kind of stuff.

October 7, 2021;  Houston, Texas, United States;  Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) celebrates in the fifth inning against the Chicago White Sox in the 2021 ALDS opener at Minute Maid Park.

ALDS Game 1 has given him proof of the kind of pitcher he can be when he’s confident about his business in the zone and doesn’t rely so much on pursuit moves. By completely outshining savvy veteran Lance Lynn, he’s put Houston firmly in control of the best-of-five series. While McCullers went all over MacGyver to Chicago, Lynn was trying to play his usual country hardball game against the best baseball roster to play country hardball. Lynn kept pumping fastballs and the Astros kept returning them. He’s lost six straight starts to Houston, and badly.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa has a problem on his hands. Lynn is clearly a terrible game against the Astros. It now seems risky to bring him back on a short rest to start Game 4 if the series succeeds, and even a fully rested Lynn against Houston in Game 5 looks problematic. To make the choices worse, La Russa isn’t likely to give Carlos Rodón a start if he doesn’t show more strength in his arms and shoulders, with his fastball dipping to around 90 mph.

Meanwhile, the DIYer and adventurer McCullers has become the kind of rock-solid, reliable starter every team needs to win a championship. In his last seven starts, McCullers is 4-1 with a 2.16 ERA. This race follows a drop of seven starts in July and August with an ERA of 4.43.

“I had a blister back then,” he now admits. “I just couldn’t spin the ball that well because of the bulb. But it’s all gone. This is no longer a problem now.

How the hell did McCullers manage to beat the blisters so quickly? Was it Stan’s Rodeo Cream, the favorite stuff of cowboys and what Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler used last year to get through the World Series?

“No,” said McCullers. “I used the Jorge Posada method. Natural.

Posada, the former Yankees wide receiver who never wore batting gloves, hardened the skin on his hands using, uh, a stream of nitrogen-rich liquid byproduct of human metabolism.

“And pickle juice,” McCullers says. “The Posada method and pickle juice.”

How very MacGyver.

More MLB coverage:
• The Dodgers avoid the potential pitfalls of giving people what they want

• The Yankees are just one step behind

• Welcome to the updated version of Playoff Baseball

• Expert predictions: who will win the World Series?

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