"Same script," McCullers said. "Every time I get hurt, it's the first inning, second inning."
That script is a tale of woe for McCullers, who allowed four runs and seven hits in six innings on his way to falling to 3-2 with a 4.54 ERA in six starts this season. On Friday, all of the Rays' damage came with two outs. To begin, Steve Pearce cracked a double to center field that scored Evan Longoria and Logan Morrison in the first. Then in the second, Logan Forsythe smacked a double to left field that scored Desmond Jennings before Brad Miller knocked an RBI single to right that brought Forsythe home.
There's a clear pattern to McCullers' problem. He has allowed 17 runs this season, with all but one coming in the first three innings. He has a sterling 0.57 ERA in the fourth through the seventh, but he has a miserable 8.00 ERA in the first three.
"I've got to start to find that groove a little earlier," McCullers said. "If you look back, Boston [on May 13], Texas [on May 20], Diamondbacks [on May 31] -- everything happens early. And I can't put our team in a 4-0 deficit in the second inning. It's ridiculous."
What's the root of the issue? To Astros manager A.J. Hinch, there are multiple possibilities.
"I think he gets more comfortable on the mound as he gets into his outing," Hinch said. "He's very particular with trying to find his arm slot, trying to find his pitches. Once he gets a feel for his breaking ball, it ends up being a put-away pitch for him. … I think there's just a touch off the gas pedal at the beginning of the game that continues to come back and hurt him."
It's interesting to consider if McCullers' fortunes would have been reversed had the first inning unfolded differently. With one out, Longoria grounded into an apparent double play, but he was ruled safe at first following Tampa Bay's challenge. Afterward, Morrison drew a four-pitch walk before Pearce's two-run double.
Nonetheless, McCullers lived early torment once more. He recognizes the solution to his familiar, frustrating problem. However, living it is another puzzle to solve.
"Start throwing the fastball and being more aggressive -- that's it," he said. "Starting getting in good counts and instead of going with the off-speed early in the count, just fire away and get them to hit it late."