McCullers pitches Astros back into first place

McCullers pitches Astros back into first place

HOUSTON -- The Astros moved into sole possession of first place in the American League West for the first time since before the All-Star break, beating the Angels, 6-3, on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, behind a terrific outing from rookie Lance McCullers.

McCullers (5-3) gave up a run in the second inning before getting into a groove and setting down 15 of the final 17 batters he faced. In the meantime, the Astros chipped away, taking a 2-1 lead in the fifth on RBIs by Colby Rasmus and Jose Altuve. Preston Tucker would then homer in the sixth, and Jon Singleton blasted his first of the year in the seventh to make it 4-1.

"A power pitcher like [Garrett Richards], we obviously put the ball in play a lot tonight, continued to put some pressure on him, and we had a couple different opportunities that we missed out on," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I just thought our team offense was pretty effective."

Richards (10-8) held the Astros hitless until Luis Valbuena led off the fifth with a double (and eventually scored). He gave up four runs and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings, leaving the game after Singleton's homer into the home bullpen in right-center.

"Garrett pitched with his back to the wall and really struggled with his command," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He got behind a lot. First pitch strikes were not what you want to see. A couple mistakes ended up being the difference in the game."

Tucker's solo homer

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
McCullers pitches Astros into first: In what was perhaps the biggest start of his young career, McCullers won for the first time since June 29 by holding the Angels to one run and five hits in seven innings. He struck out five and didn't walk a batter in a start for the first time since June 8. McCullers has allowed one earned run or less in eight of his 11 starts.

"I was really focusing trying to throw strikes in all counts tonight," McCullers said. "That was the big thing going in. Even with two strikes, we wanted to make sure we were in the zone."

Must C: Altuve's slick toss

From no-no to 'oh no': Richards no-hit the Astros through the first four innings, then immediately got in trouble in the fifth, giving up a leadoff double to Valbuena, uncorking a wild pitch, surrendering a sac fly to Rasmus and scattering three more hits -- a single to Hank Conger, a double to Jake Marisnick and an RBI infield single to Altuve. Richards then gave up the solo homers, the first time he has given up two homers since Sept. 23, 2013, against the A's.

Richards starts strong, but fades vs. Astros

"I was falling behind in the count on a lot of guys," said Richards, who threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 26 hitters he faced. "My first-pitch strikes weren't there. It was one of those days. They're swinging the bat well right now, things are going their way."

Altuve's RBI infield single

Singleton gets one: Singleton, who bashed 13 homers in his rookie season last year, hit his first home run in the Majors since Sept. 5 of last year, breaking a team-long 81-at-bat drought between homers. He added an RBI single in the eighth. Singleton was third in the Minor Leagues and led the Triple-A level with 17 homers when he was called up June 26.

"I can kind of take a deep breath after it happened," Singleton said. "Every time you go up to the plate you want to hit the ball hard, so that's kind of relief to go up there and achieve one of my goals."

Singleton's second-half turnaround a timely one 

Singleton's solo blast

Underwhelming debuts: David DeJesus and David Murphy went a combined 1-for-8 in their Angels debuts, with DeJesus striking out three times in the leadoff spot and Murphy unable to get a ball out of the infield while batting cleanup. The Angels were without Mike Trout (sore left wrist) for a second straight game and were limited to just three hits in a six-inning stretch after Conor Gillaspie's second-inning RBI triple.

Trout 'better' but misses second straight game

"It was a lot today, traveling from Tampa to here," DeJesus said. "But the guy who was pitching threw well; threw his curveball for strikes on 3-2, had two strikes on me all the time. I have to tip my cap; he did a good job against me."

Murphy singles in Angels debut

QUOTABLE
"Our confidence is high. Our confidence has never been low. Obviously, we've had a few swells here and there, both ways, both positively and negatively. But again, our guys know that we have to play the entire schedule. I keep repeating that. Our guys know that. We haven't accomplished anything yet." -- Hinch

Astros hope to make another deal before Deadline

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Altuve extended his hitting streak at Minute Maid Park to 18 games, which is a record for the ballpark.

Albert Pujols hit his 30th homer off Luke Gregerson in the ninth, a solo shot over the left-field scoreboard. With that, the Angels' first baseman joined Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mike Schmidt and Babe Ruth as the only players to log 13 career 30-homer seasons. Pujols is the only player to amass 30-plus homers 13 times within his first 15 seasons.

Pujols' 30th homer

WHAT'S NEXT
Angels: Matt Shoemaker takes the ball on Thursday, with first pitch at 7:10 p.m. CT. The 28-year-old right-hander has a 2.59 ERA in his last five games (four starts) and is fighting to keep a spot in the Angels' rotation when Jered Weaver gets activated off the disabled list, a move that could take place next week. Shoemaker (5-7, 4.55 ERA) has an 8.76 ERA in 12 1/3 career innings against the Astros.

Astros: Left-hander Scott Kazmir makes his Minute Maid Park debut in an Astros uniform when he faces the Angels in Thursday's series finale. Kazmir (6-5, 2.24 ERA) fired seven scoreless innings Friday against the Royals in Kansas City after coming over in a trade from the A's. In his 11-year career, Kazmir has made only three starts at Minute Maid Park, sporting a 2-0 record with a 4.70 ERA in 15 1/3 innings.

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Alden Gonzalez and Brian McTaggart are reporters for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.