HOUSTON — Lance McCullers Jr. is to pitching what MacGyver is to gadgets. His mind is always churning. He is ever looking for ways to escape jams, if not avoid them altogether. McCullers had another MacGyver moment last year after both Manuel Margot and Mike Zunino of the Rays smashed his signature pitch, the knuckle-curve, for home runs in the American League Championship Series, where the Astros' season ended.
“I was like, you know what, I really feel like I need something else,” McCullers says.
He needed a pitch with a different shape, especially to show right-handed hitters, in addition to his curveball, sinker and changeup, which all work with a downward orientation. He spoke with Houston pitching coaches Brent Strom and Joshua Miller. They decided the slider was the answer, the safety pin to put to emergency use this time.
The next step was to talk to former teammate Collin McHugh, the Guru of Spin.
“If you want to know anything about spin, there’s nobody better,” Strom says.
McCullers did not want any slider. He wanted one with equatorial spin—one that came out of his hand with a spin axis from three o’clock to nine o’clock on the face of a clock. It would move away from righthanders with vicious horizontal break; the vertical break be damned. Presto! The pitcher who had not thrown a slider before suddenly owned one of the nastiest sliders in the game.
Just ask the White Sox.
The righthand-heavy White Sox lineup again was no match for McCullers and his MacGyver act, not with those sliders sliding away from them. And when they started looking for those, McCullers fed them sinkers that they pounded 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 put on a pitching clinic Thursday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, which the Astros won 6–1. He carried the ball into the seventh inning, allowing no runs and—for the first time all year—issuing no walks.
“There was really no game plan,” McCullers says. “[Catcher] Martín [Maldonado] and I just talked before the game about throwing my pitches in the zone.”
Nine years after he gained notice by posting an ERA of 0.18 in high school, four years after he threw 24 straight curveballs against the Yankees to close the ALCS, and three years after Tommy John surgery, McCullers has arrived as a pitcher in full.
On the eve of Thursday's game, McCullers said, “I feel like this is the start I’ve waited three years for—all the work coming back from Tommy John surgery was for a start like this.”
Just how extraordinary was his start? McCullers became just the sixth American League starter to win Game 1 of a postseason series with no runs and no walks allowed, joining Corey Kluber (2016 World Series), Josh Beckett (2007 ALDS), Mike Mussina (2005 ALDS), Scott Erickson (1997 ALCS) and Carl Mays (1921 World Series).
“To be honest, I expected him to come out and pitch this way,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve says.
Where once he drafted behind pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, McCullers has grown into Houston's staff ace. His weapons are as numerous as they are impressive. His changeup is so nasty (also with side-to-side spin) and gets such funky swings that he calls it “the UFO.” His slider (.149) and curveball (.150) are among the 10 toughest breaking pitches to hit among all starting pitchers. His sinker averages 94 mph, and he can dial it up to 97.
The curveball is so reliable that McCullers does not bother throwing it in bullpen sessions or pre-innings warmups, not even with a week in between starts as he had for Game 1.
“Not off the mound,” he says. “I did play catch with a softball and broke off a few.”
“Yes,” he explains. “I feel like a baseball is too easy to manipulate with spin. Spinning a softball makes you really focus on throwing the curve the right way to get it to spin. It’s something I learned when I was 13 from my pitching coach. It was the same thing he did with [the late] Jose Fernandez. Spinning your curveball with a softball to really get the correct spin.”
“Lance,” Strom says, “has a very active mind. All of the meetings with him are the same. ‘What about this? What about that? What if I tunnel this or show the hitter that.’ The meetings all end the same way. I say to him, ‘Lance, when you get in trouble, just throw your damn curveball.’”
McCullers is in his own way the toughest pitcher to hit in the league. He allowed the fewest hits per nine innings and the fewest home runs per nine innings while going 13–5 with a 3.16 ERA. The one knock on McCullers is that he tinkers so much with his gadget box of pitches that he loses the strike zone. He led the league in walks, a notoriety that should not happen with his kind of stuff.
ALDS Game 1 gave him proof of what kind of pitcher he can be when he trusts his stuff in the zone and does not rely so heavily on chase swings. By thoroughly out-pitching the savvy veteran Lance Lynn, he put Houston firmly in control of the best-of-five series. While McCullers was going all MacGyver on Chicago, Lynn was trying to play his usual country hardball game against the best lineup in baseball at playing country hardball. Lynn kept pumping in fastballs and the Astros kept turning them around. He has lost six straight starts against Houston, and badly.
White Sox manager Tony La Russa has a problem on his hands. Lynn is clearly a terrible matchup against the Astros. It now seems a risk to bring him back on short rest to start Game 4 if the series gets there, and even a fully rested Lynn vs. Houston in a Game 5 looks problematic. To worsen the choices, La Russa is not likely to give Carlos Rodón a start if he doesn’t show more arm and shoulder strength, with his fastball dipping to around 90 mph.
Meanwhile, McCullers, the tinkerer and the adventurer, has become the kind of rock-solid reliable starter every team needs to win a championship. In his past seven starts, McCullers is 4–1 with a 2.16 ERA. This run follows a seven-start slump in July and August with a 4.43 ERA.
“I had a blister then,” he admits now. “I just couldn’t spin the ball as well because of the blister. But it’s all gone. It’s no problem now.”
How in the world did McCullers conquer blisters so quickly? Was it Stan’s Rodeo Cream, the preferred substance of cowboys and what Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler used last year to get through the World Series?
“No,” McCullers says. “I used the Jorge Posada method. Au naturel.”
Posada, the former Yankees catcher who never wore batting gloves, toughened the skin of his hands by using, um, a stream of the nitrogen-rich liquid by-product of human metabolism.
“And pickle juice,” McCullers says. “The Posada method and pickle juice.”
How very MacGyver.
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