MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Magnitude of Game 4 not lost on McCullers

Rookie righty relishes chance to pitch Astros into ALCS

Magnitude of Game 4 not lost on McCullers

HOUSTON -- It is not just another game for Astros rookie right-hander Lance McCullers. On Monday (1 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1), he will take the mound at Minute Maid Park for Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the defending AL champion Royals.

A win, and the Astros celebrate advancing to the AL Championship Series, which begins Friday (time TBD on FOX/FOX Sports 1) in the park of either the Rangers or the Blue Jays, whichever team wins the other ALDS.

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A loss, and Houston will head back to Kansas City for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) at Kauffman Stadium.

It is only the 38th time in postseason history that a rookie has drawn a start in a potential clinching game and only the 10th time in a Division Series, which was added to the postseason schedule in 1995.

Game Date Result
Gm 1 Oct. 8 HOU 5, KC 2
Gm 2 Oct. 9 KC 5, HOU 4
Gm 3 Oct. 11 HOU 4, KC 2
Gm 4 Oct. 12 KC 9, HOU 6
Gm 5 Oct. 14 KC 7, HOU 2

McCullers understands it is different than any of the 22 starts he made this season.

"Yeah, you can't go into a game like [Monday] and just say to yourself, 'Oh, it's like every other game you ever pitched in,' because it's not," McCullers said. "And I'm OK with that. I'm going to attack that head on, understand that the moment's bigger, the stage is bigger."

Bigger and more challenging. Teams with a rookie starter in a potential postseason clinching game are 17-20 in 37 starts, 4-5 in nine Division Series games.

It can be a statement for a younger pitcher, like St. Louis right-hander Michael Wacha, who stepped to the mound to face the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the 2013 National League Championship Series and responded seven shutout innings in a 9-0 pennant-clinching victory for the Cardinals.

Wacha had begun the season in the Minor Leagues, just like McCullers this year, and he went to the postseason with only 15 games of big league experience, six of which were in relief.

McCullers escapes trouble

And three years earlier, it was Madison Bumgarner who gained national recognition with a postseason domination that included a Division Series-clinching Game 4 victory against the Braves in which he allowed two runs in six innings, the first of seven victories he has earned in 10 postseason decisions.

There is another number that bodes well for the Astros and McCullers. The right-hander -- whose father, also Lance McCullers, pitched all of four seasons and parts of three others in the big leagues -- will become the 11th-youngest pitcher to start a potential clincher. The 10 younger made a total of 12 potential clinching starts, and their teams won 10 of those games.

What also bodes well for McCullers is the righty himself. He has that intangible that makes a winner.

Now it's not like McCullers overwhelmed the big leagues during the season. He even had a three-week refresher course at Triple-A in August. But McCullers was 6-7 with a 3.22 ERA and he did respond with an emotionally big victory. With a postseason berth starting to slip away, Houston had a season-ending six-game road trip, which was a focal point for the doubters of a team that had lost 416 games the four previous seasons.

The Astros had won 10 of 12 road games in April, but when they arrived in Seattle for McCullers' start Sept. 28, they were carrying the baggage of having lost 44 of their previous 63 road games.

McCullers gave them six strong innings to earn a 3-2 victory against the Mariners, opening a road trip which not only saw the Astros win four of the six games, but then win at Yankee Stadium in the AL Wild Card Game matchup with the Yankees, and then split the first two ALDS games at Kansas City. That underscored to Houston's front-office officials -- including Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, a special adviser to owner Jim Crane -- the ability McCullers had to relish the challenge.

McCullers fans nine in outing

"I would normally say I'd be concerned,'' Ryan said of a rookie starting a clinching game, "but considering the kind of makeup he has, I'm not concerned in the least bit. He's special. He's a real aggressive competitor. That's his makeup.''

One of those rookies who started a clincher was Gary Gentry, who got the call for the 1969 Mets in Game 3 of the NLCS against the Braves. With a chance to complete the sweep, Gentry gave up two runs in the first and came out after the second inning in favor of a 22-year-old Ryan, who worked the final seven innings of a 7-4 victory, which sent the Mets to the World Series.

Gentry got another start in the World Series, and that time worked six innings in a 6-0 victory against Baltimore in Game 3. Ryan worked the final three innings for the save.

"You're going to be excited,'' said Ryan. "It's the biggest game you've ever pitched in your life.''

There is more at stake than simply a win or a loss, which McCullers knows.

"I'm out there pitching for more than just to win," McCullers said. "I'm pitching for my guys, pitching for the fans. So it's going to be -- I'm going to be fine. I may get a little anxious like I do before pretty much every start, but I'm going to go out there and I'm going to compete, and I'm not going to hold anything back."

And the Astros have no reason to doubt him.

Youngest pitchers to start potential postseason clincher

Name | Age | Series | Team | Opponent | Result | Innings
Fernando Valenzuela | 20y, 352d | 1981 NLCS Gm 5 | LAD | MON | W 2-1 | 8.2 IP
Madison Bumgarner | 21y, 71d | 2010 NLDS Gm 4 | SF | ATL | W 3-2 | 6.0 IP
Bret Saberhagen | 21y, 188d | 1985 ALCS Gm 7 | KC | TOR | W 6-2 | 3.0 IP
Steve Avery | 21y, 195d | 1991 WS Gm 6 | ATL | MIN | L 4-3 | 6.0 IP
Bret Saberhagen | 21y, 199d | 1985 WS Gm 7 | KCR | STL | W 11-0 | 9.0 IP
Franklin Morales | 21y, 264d | 2007 NLCS Gm 4 | COL | ARI | W 6-4 | 4.0 IP
Dontrelle Willis | 21y, 265d | 2007 NLDS | Gm 4 | FLA | SF | W 7-6 | 5.1 IP
Don Gullett | 21y, 279d | 1972 NLCS Gm 5 | CIN | PIT | W 4-3 | 3.0 IP
Jaret Wright | 21y, 281d | 1997 ALDS Gm 5 | CLE | NYY | W 4-3 | 5.1 IP
Storm Davis | 21y, 286d | 1983 ALCS Gm 4 | BAL | CHW | W 3-0 | 6.0 IP
Jaret Wright | 21y, 301d | 1997 WS Gm 7 | CLE | FLA | L 3-2 | 6.1 IP
Whitey Ford | 21y, 351d | 1950 WS Gm 4 | NYY | PHI | W 5-2 | 8.2 IP
Lance McCullers | 22y, 10d | 2015 ALDS Gm 4 | HOU | KC | ???????

Last 10 rookies to start potential postseason clincher

 

Player | Series | Team | Opponent | Result | Innings pitched | Earned runs
Michael Wacha |
2013 NLCS Game 6 | STL | LAD | W 9-0 | 7.0 IP | 0 ER
Sonny Gray | 2013 ALDS Game 5 | OAK | DET | L 3-0 | 5.0 IP | 3 ER
Gerrit Cole | 2013 NLDS Game 5 | PIT | STL | L 6-1 | 5.0 IP | 2 ER
Dan Straily | 2013 ALDS Game 4 | OAK | DET | L 8-6 6.0 IP | 3 ER
Danny Salazar | 2013 AL WC | CLE | TB | L 4-0 | 4.0 IP | 3 ER
Jarrod Parker | 2012 ALDS Game 5 | OAK | DET | L 6-0 | 6.1 IP | 4 ER
Yu Darvish | 2012 AL WC | TEX | BAL | L 5-1 | 6.2 IP | 2 ER
Ivan Nova | 2011 ALDS Game 5 | NYY | DET | L 3-2 | 2.0 IP | 2 ER
Madison Bumgarner | 2010 NLDS Game 4 | SF | ATL | W 3-2 | 6.0 IP | 2 ER
Hiroki Kuroda | 2008 NLDS Game 3 | LAD | CHC | W 3-1 | 6.1 IP | 0 ER

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.