Astros righty allows three runs in first, then dominates over next six innings
By Chandler Rome
HOUSTON -- The intensity of September baseball is new to Lance McCullers, as it is to a sizable portion of the Astros teammates he shares a clubhouse with. Pitches are magnified, mistakes more frowned upon and emotions sometimes reach a boiling point.
It's those emotions that propelled McCullers to brush aside a rocky first inning -- when he allowed back-to-back home runs to Mike Trout and Albert Pujols -- and allow just one hit and two baserunners in the next six frames of Tuesday's 4-3 loss to the Angels.
The emotions ran over in the seventh, when McCullers fanned David Freese after a nine-pitch battle to strand Pujols at third and end his night. Right after Freese swung at the buried curveball, McCullers yelled in his direction and glared at him as he walked to the dugout.
It was the result, McCullers said, of barking he'd heard all night from the Angels bench.
He said it started in the bottom of the second inning as the Astros smashed back-to-back home runs to cut their deficit to 3-2. McCullers hit Freese in the helmet in the top of that inning with a 2-2 curveball -- the seventh pitch of the at-bat -- that slipped from his hand.
"It was kind of the perfect storm as far as me really pushing to keep us in the game," McCullers said. "They were chirping at me a lot the whole game. It didn't really get under my skin, but it lit a fire underneath me. I got punched in the mouth early and I really wanted to put forth a great effort for the guys, keep it close and give us a chance to win. But them jabbing at me most of the game kind of fired me up a little bit."
That fire burned throughout the game as McCullers found his breaking ball and located his fastball better than in the first. After hitting Freese in the second and then getting Chris Iannetta to ground into a double play, McCullers retired 14 straight hitters until Pujols blooped a single to lead off the emotional seventh inning.
"Really after the first, they didn't really touch him," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "They had a little bit of traffic in the seventh, but all in all, I think the effort from Lance, being able to adjust on the fly in a big game like this, especially when they came back through the order, he threw very, very well and [I'm] very proud of him."
McCullers, who's arguably been the Astros' most consistent starting pitcher in September, turned in a fourth straight outing with three earned runs or fewer but again found himself lacking run support. In his four September starts, the Astros have scored a combined nine runs, though McCullers refuses to use that as a crutch. Instead, he rued the two mislocated fastballs to Pujols and Trout in the first that allowed runs to score.
Known for his relentlessness and outward emotion on the mound, McCullers regretted the seventh-inning blowup and directing so much vitriol toward the other bench, but made no apologies for his fiery passion.
"It's kind of one of those things in the heat of battle where you kind of do something that you look back on and wish you kind of kept your cool," McCullers said. "But I'm not just going to be pushed around for seven innings, and I got out of a big jam there and my emotions got the best of me."
Chandler Rome is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.