HOUSTON — Lance McCullers Jr. had felt it before, that buzz of nervous energy at home in October, three decks of orange-clad fans begging for him to start the show. For three years he had yearned to feel it again, but each time, something new held him back.
In 2018, his aching elbow shifted him to the bullpen. In 2019, he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2020, the pandemic kept fans away from all of the American League playoff games and shifted the games to neutral sites.
When you play for the Houston Astros, though, the opportunities just keep coming. McCullers started a postseason game at Minute Maid Park on Thursday for the first time since the 2017 World Series, shutting out the Chicago White Sox for six and two-thirds innings of a 6-1 victory in Game 1 of this A.L. division series.
“The introductions while I was warming up, it was really cool,” McCullers said. “I think I got the chills in the bullpen and just wanted to really have a good game for the crowd and for our team. It was a good day.”
It was a perfect day, really, for the Astros and their 40,497 paying fans. Yordan Alvarez doubled and homered, and three teammates — Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa and Jake Meyers — also had two hits apiece. The White Sox advanced only one runner past second base, did not have an extra-base hit and drew no walks off McCullers.
That was significant, because McCullers led the majors in walks, with 76. He had a strong year in spite of that because he is so hard to hit; he led the A.L. in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, with 6.8, while going 13-5 with a 3.16 earned run average.
McCullers is a different pitcher than he was in 2017, when he stifled the Yankees in the A.L. Championship Series with 24 consecutive curveballs to close Game 7. He added a slider this season and uses it for roughly a quarter of his pitches. His confidence was obvious Thursday.
“I didn’t have any walks today because I had that plan, that focus; I wanted to go into the game and I wanted to attack,” McCullers said. “A lot of leverage counts — 1-2, 2-2 counts — where I could have gone for the strikeout, but I was trying to just throw good pitches for weak contact, keep the pitch count low, try to go deep into the game.”
He lasted into the seventh inning, longer than any of the starters in the wild-card games this week. His opponent, Lance Lynn, was pulled with two outs in the fourth. Lynn gave up five runs and six hits to a Houston offense that led the majors in runs while compiling fewer strikeouts than every team besides Toronto.
“They’re just deep, they battle, they don’t strike out,” Lynn said. “They pick and choose times when they want to be aggressive. That’s why they’ve had the success they’ve had in recent years. From top to bottom, they don’t make it easy on you.”
Alvarez, especially, was a force in the early innings, drawing a walk and scoring the Astros’ first run, then doubling in a run before driving a homer into the right field bullpen off reliever Reynaldo Lopez.
Alvarez, the 2019 A.L. Rookie of the Year, played only two games last season before having surgery on both of his knees. He missed the playoffs and the Astros finished one win shy of the World Series in Dusty Baker’s first season as their manager.
“Life wasn’t too pleasant last year without Yordan,” Baker said. “I didn’t even know what I had.”