MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

McHugh bounces back with scoreless outing

McHugh bounces back with scoreless outing

HOUSTON -- This was the performance the Astros always figure they're going to get from right-hander Collin McHugh.

"I wasn't going to let one bad start define my season," he said. "I wasn't going to let it define the next game either."

Maybe that's the key.

"There was an intensity to him," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after an 8-2 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

McHugh's season had begun five days earlier with a nightmarish game at Yankee Stadium, where he retired one of the six hitters he faced and allowed five earned runs in a 16-6 loss.

McHugh could have said something about the cold weather or his inability to grip the ball. He could have used a half-dozen alibis, all of them legit. Instead, he said nothing. McHugh said he'd let his team down and would focus on not letting it happen again.

"Sometimes we take for granted his consistency and his cerebral approach," Hinch said. "We discount his competitive fire. Tonight, he came out with a little chip on his shoulder."

In doing so, McHugh had the entirety of his impressive game on display, the cutters and curves and slurves, the command of the strike zone and the constant changing of speeds to keep hitters off balance.

Valbuena's barehanded play

This is the guy Houston has come to count on, the guy who went 19-7 last season and has helped lead the franchise back to the postseason. So on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park, McHugh delivered nicely with seven shutout innings.

McHugh represents the best of these Astros in an assortment of ways. General manager Jeff Luhnow plucked him off the waiver wire in December 2013.

The Astros believed there was more there than an 0-8 career record with the Mets and Rockies would indicate. They liked McHugh's control and his array of pitches.

McHugh was easy to overlook because he didn't have a blazing fastball. But he's exactly the kind of pitcher Luhnow's pitching coach, Brent Strom, loves to work with.

At some point in the 2014 season, everything clicked. McHugh showed the baseball world that location, movement and changing speeds are more important than pure velocity.

Since Aug. 1, 2014, McHugh is 27-8. Only Jake Arrieta (28-9) has more victories in that time.

After a 2-4 road trip against the Yankees and Brewers, McHugh's performance was exactly the game the Astros needed, one that restored some sense of normalcy in a season of optimism and expectations. Oh, and there was an offense that collected 14 hits and had a 6-0 lead on the board in the fourth inning.

Former Astros at home opener

For McHugh, it was a night of baby steps.

"I was focused on getting out of that first inning," McHugh said.

McHugh needed just 12 pitches to do that, and when his teammates promptly scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning, a tone had been set. He was in trouble only a time or two.

In the top of the third, the Royals had runners on second and third with two outs. McHugh got out of the inning by getting Salvador Perez to pop an 89-mph fastball to center.

Then in the seventh, Kansas City loaded the bases against him. McHugh got out of that one, too, by getting Mike Moustakas on a pop fly and Lorenzo Cain on a fly ball to right.

"After that first outing, I flushed it," McHugh said. "I've been doing this long enough, and I've had worse outings, if you can believe it.

"It's not the first time I've had a rough one. I know it's a long season. We've got guys who know how to guide you through a week even if you've had a tough one."

McHugh said that first game was a "little bit of jitters and maybe some anxiousness about getting the season started on the right foot as opposed to just being aggressive and doing what you do best. I think that's what we got back to."

That's what Hinch saw, too.

"He pitched with an incredible amount of intensity, conviction, confidence," Hinch said. "You guys can add a few words for me if you want. He was exceptional.

"He pitched with a purpose tonight, which I'm glad he made the adjustment from being a careful pitcher, dancing around the strike zone, to attacking them with all his pitches and setting a tone for our team. I thought it was important that we fed off that as a team."

When he's asked about his entire body of work, McHugh says it's all about the larger accomplishment of making the playoffs in 2015 and pushing the eventual World Series-champion Royals to a deciding Game 5 in the American League Division Series.

"You don't get wins unless your team helps you," he said. "More than a few of those, I've been on the right side of some ugly games. They pick me up when I need to be picked up, and I try to pick them up whenever I can. I've been fortunate, but it's more of a testament to how good a team we've had."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.