SEATTLE -- Considering he was limited by a loose pitch count in his first start for the Astros in more than five weeks, right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. pitched well enough Wednesday night to give his team hope he can be an effective weapon down the stretch.
McCullers, pitching for the first time since June 30, held the Mariners to three hits and four runs and struck out four batters in 5 1/3 innings in the Astros' 5-3 win -- their seventh in a row -- to sweep the series at Safeco Field. A healthy and effective McCullers at the top of the rotation with newcomer Justin Verlander and ace Dallas Keuchel sets up the Astros for a deep postseason run.
"I was hoping I was going to be able to stay out there," he said. "I only had 75, 76 pitches. It was a close game and we're trying to get as many wins as we can right now. As the year goes on, you're always looking, 'We're this many games up.' When you get to this part of the season, you're like, 'We have this many games until we clinch.' My first game back, I tried to be conservative with my pitch count, but I fully expect the next outing going forward, when those kinds of situations come up again, that they're going to try to let me work out of it."
McCullers gave up a leadoff triple to Jean Segura in the sixth, and was pulled after consecutive one-out singles by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. He threw 76 pitches -- 37 fastballs, 37 curves and even a pair of changeups. His fastball averaged 94.9 mph.
"I don't think he made every pitch that he wanted to, but the conviction in his pitches is what I was the most impressed with," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's really a tough guy to face for the other side. When we get him rolling and get him that sort of mojo and moxie, he can pitch. He can do a lot of damage. He's going to be key for us."
McCullers, who had been on the disabled list with back discomfort, retired the first 11 batters he faced and 12 of the first 13 before Kyle Seager led off the fifth with a homer that snapped McCullers' streak of consecutive innings without allowing a long ball at 49 1/3.
He touched 97 mph in the first inning on one occasion, which was encouraging for Hinch.
"He came out with a little extra adrenaline, a little extra conviction," Hinch said. "He was going to enter the game with his best stuff and I thought he did well. There's a lot that goes into coming back after a long layoff. I was proud of him how he attacked their hitters.
"He was on a short leash, just given the pitch count, and we weren't going to let him go too deep into the game. He threw some really good breaking balls, but the velocity early and carrying it all the way through his outing, I was very encouraged."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.