March 04, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) Houston pitcher Lance McCullers felt strong following Saturday's simulated game. His next stop could be a Grapefruit League mound, maybe as early as next week.

McCullers has been on a tailored throwing program this spring as he works his way back from an elbow strain that shortened his 2016 season.

He threw 43 pitches to catcher Evan Gattis on a back field in an outing that simulated three innings, showcasing a fastball that touched 95 mph.

''It went well,'' the former first round draft choice said. ''I'm feeling good. I'm feeling better and better every time I go out as far as my ability to make pitches.''

Astros manager A.J. Hinch wanted to wait until he learned how McCullers felt on Sunday before committing to a date for the righty's first spring start.

Walking to the mound under sunny skies and a blustery 20 mph wind, McCullers joked in the direction of Jake Marisnick, Alex Bregman and Juan Centeno - the three batters he'd face in the first inning - that they shouldn't dig in.

''If I hit anybody, I'm sorry,'' he told them. ''There's a lot of wind.''

That didn't turn out to be an issue.

Working from both the wind-up and the stretch, McCullers threw all four of his pitches for strikes, including a particularly nasty sinker that drew a swinging strikeout from Marisnick.

McCullers is working to add a changeup to his fastball, sinker, curveball arsenal. On Saturday, that pitch both darted and sank.

''Me going out there and throwing change-ups and then being bad isn't going to be OK with me,'' McCullers said. ''I'm going to throw it and I'm going to expect it to be good.''

McCullers was 6-5 last year with a 3.22 ERA. He also had a 3.22 ERA as a rookie in 2015.

Despite the relatively slow start to spring, McCullers says he's on pace to be ready for the start of the season.

''I think I'm on a pretty normal pace, especially for the fact that this was the plan all along and I knew back in January that this was going to be my pace,'' McCullers said. ''Everything's been going well so far, so, no, I don't feel behind. I should get plenty of starts in and as long as I'm feeling healthy I expect to pitch well.''

The 23-year-old McCullers isn't the only Astros hurler on a personalized pace for spring.

So is 2015 American League Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel, who is working his way back from a shoulder injury that limited his 2016 season.

Keuchel threw a bullpen session on Saturday and is slated to throw a simulated game of his own on Tuesday, a day off for the Astros. If all goes well in that outing, the next step for Keuchel would also likely be a Grapefruit League start.

''From a presence standpoint, from a team morale standpoint, these guys all understand that those are two of our most important guys,'' Hinch said. ''They were in our playoff rotation two years ago. That's why the attention is on them this spring.''

Another expected member of the Astros rotation, Colin McHugh, is also working his way closer toward an exhibition start. The righty experienced a dead arm early in camp. Hinch said McHugh's been long tossing again and should be back on a bullpen mound again shortly.

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