BURY ME IN THE H

Astros' Lance McCullers opens up about his comeback, World Series game plan

Lance McCullers Jr. is no stranger to the World Series. Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images.

Lance McCullers, Jr. is seriously busy. The 2022 World Series is just hours away at Minute Maid Park, a staggering fourth appearance by the Houston Astros in the past six years. Not surprisingly, the team is in go-time mode as it prepares to face the Philadelphia Phillies. The entire city is buzzing with a “this is our year” frenzy, and on this crisp morning in late October, it seems every third local is sporting an Astros jersey.

A veteran, team-first, clubhouse leader and pivotal pitching presence in the Astros’ playoff run, McCullers is ready for the task.

But first, the fiery, never-back-down star who boasts a nationwide army of fans and also one of the nastiest sliders and curveballs in Major League Baseball, has to tackle another major task — one that demands the famously focused McCullers’ undivided attention. It’s serious.

I’m coloring with my daughter,” he tells CultureMap via phone as we plan a visit to his home. He’s immediately interrupted by a tiny, impossibly adorable, high-pitched voice. “We’re not coloring, Daddy,” explains his cherubic — and clearly, also famously focused — two-year-old daughter, Ava. “We’re drawing.”

“Sorry,” he replies to her with an apologetic tone familiar to dads of young daughters everywhere, and then, back to us: “We’re drawing.”

Call it a comeback

With Game 1 of the World Series drawing near, McCullers is taking a short break — a sort of quiet before the storm — as he lounges in his home office. Kicking back in a black T-shirt, black shorts, and a backwards hat, he’s just back from New York City, where he started Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. McCullers helped the Astros dispatch the pinstriped rivals — and silence swarms of NYC trash talkers, who seem to perpetually live in 2017, in the process.

(Speaking of 2017 and the Yankees, McCullers’ epic save in Game 7 of the ALCS versus the Yankees — where he not only threw four shutout innings but also fired off an astounding 24 straight curveballs — is a YouTube must-watch for fans.)

Before his Yankees takedown, McCullers was crucial in the Astros’ tense showdown with the Seattle Mariners in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, which went to near historic 18 innings. Dominating the Mariners in front of a hostile crowd, he held the Mariners scoreless over six innings. With that seven-strikeout win, McCullers moved to second in Astros history for most postseason strikeouts — 69 — behind his white-hot, Cy-Young-Award-bound teammate Justin Verlander (who has 96).

Though he’s no stranger to World Series appearances, the veteran McCullers still feels a bit of newness in this year’s World Series run. “It feels similar but different in a way for me,” he says, “just because I was not here in ’19 — I was rehabbing for TJ [the serious Tommy John surgery that requires extensive rehab]. And then obviously last year, although I was very much part of the team — pitched the full season and pitched us through the ALDS.”

Astros Lance McCullers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Pain — and gain

He’s referring to how he was forced to miss last year’s title run due to a nagging forearm injury, a flexor tendon strain that hounded him and nearly cost him this year, as well, with potential surgery looming. Far more afraid of letting his teammates down than any physical pain he’s endured, McCullers was forced to navigate the surreal purgatory in pro sports — injured, but still with the team.

“There's always a weird dynamic when you're not playing, but you’re still around,” he recalls. “Just because of the amount of time I’ve been here and how well I was pitching, there was just an assumed leadership role. So, you try to fill that leadership role still, even though you can’t play.”

Always one to shy away from credit and instead deflect to his teammates, McCullers recalls that one of the worst feelings was receiving what should have been a proud token, the 2021 American League Championship ring. Worse, he knew last year would be his final with dear friend and teammate Carlos Correa, who would later depart for the Minnesota Twins in free agency.

“Getting our rings this year from last year was one of the most bitter feelings,” he says. “I do believe that last year in particular, I could have made a huge difference. And then, you know, Carlos was here last year — and I was not here — and I knew he probably wasn't gonna come back. I really wanted to have that memory with him. So, when I got that ring, all those feelings kind of came back.”

Even the sports media and fan chatter claiming that the Astros would’ve taken home the title last year if McCullers had been active did little to help his feeling of loss. “It’s very flattering when people are like, ‘oh, if Lance would have been there, we would’ve won,” McCullers says. “It's a compliment to me, but a sad statement — all at the same time.”

Plagued by pain in his forearm (some caused by floating bone chips), weakness, and lack of movement in his elbow, McCullers endured an “aggressively slow” rehabilitation last year, receiving platelet therapy and more to avoid the dreaded knife that could spell the end of a season. Over months, he fought the persistent physical issues and doubts.

Just do it

After a game in June, he went home and told his wife Kara that he was sure he’d need surgery. Realizing he’d be operated on regardless of resting the arm or playing, he chose the latter. “I told her, ‘I’m just gonna stop worrying about it hurting. I’m gonna start throwing.

Resigned to facing another long surgery, McCullers was taken aback when he met with noted surgeon Keith Meister, who also operated on Verlander: “He said it was time to either have surgery or continue the rehab — and stop worrying about everything.

”Meister’s advice played perfectly to McCullers’ never-quit, mind-over-matter, do-the-thing mentality. “It's just like, just do it,” McCullers explains. “My body has to get on board. My mind’s made up. I’m doing it, and my body has to get on board.”

Get on board, it did. By summer, “things just kind of started getting better and better and better,” he recalls. “And gradually, it got to the point where by the end of June and early July … I was like, ‘man, I think we’re gonna make it. There was a drastic change in my mindset and in the way my body was responding.”

Beware of hungry dogs

McCullers has always been an unflinching spokesperson for the Astros, willing to take on anyone in defense of his team. He sees a common thread among his teammates who hail from wildly varying backgrounds.

Continue on CultureMap to learn more about the Astros incredible culture and facing Philly.

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Can Hunter Brown replace an Astros legend like Peña did? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It’s official. Justin Verlander’s time with the Houston Astros has come to an end after he agreed to a two-year, $86.7 million deal to be the newest pitcher for the New York Mets.

Now with the 39-year-old, soon to be 40-year-old, in a different shade of blue and orange, Houston’s starting pitching rotation has completely turned over a new leaf. What exactly is next for the group?

Verlander, who joined the Astros at the last hour in 2017, helped lead Houston to two World Series championships, and he was a key figure in the organization during his tenure. His latest season, coming off Tommy John Surgery, was nothing short of sensational.

He won his third AL Cy Young award by unanimous vote. He led Houston with a 1.75 ERA, a WHIP of 0.83, and an 18-4 record in his starts. In the postseason, Verlander’s run was filled with more ups and downs, but he also accomplished new accolades, including getting his first career win in the World Series in the pivotal Game Five. Replacing his production will be a tough task.

The Astros, overall, are in great position with their starting rotation. Framber Valdez presumably slides in as the new No. 1, although he is in arbitration with the team. The same goes with Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy, all of whom showed they can start, and who are also in arbitration or close to entering it.

Lance McCullers Jr. is the only starting pitcher with a long-term deal in place as of now, however, his health and ability to stay on the mound for Houston has been a long-time concern. The name that is interesting for the Astros is Hunter Brown.

The 24-year-old appeared in 10 games for the Astros in 2022, including three in the postseason. Coincidentally, Houston won every game in which he made an appearance. In the short sample size, Brown pitched in only 20.1 innings with a 0.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a 2-0 record in the regular season.

Most importantly, Brown showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason. The most noteworthy performance came in Game Three of the American League Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners.

With no room for error, the young pitcher came into a scoreless game knowing that one swing of the bat could hand Houston a loss. He not only managed to control the nerves in front of a hostile crowd that hadn’t seen a postseason game in over 20 years, and he pitched two scoreless innings, only allowing one hit.

Again, only a short resumé, but impressive nonetheless. Brown should have a rotation spot secured. Ultimately, the Astros need to see if his flashes were previews of a young, bright career. Best-case scenario, Brown could become the 2023 version of Jeremy Peña, which would be incredible for the Astros.

Owner Jim Crane said a week ago during José Abreu’s introduction news conference, Houston can never have enough pitching. The Astros could kick the tires on available free agents.

With the Astros saving $43 million in 2023 had they matched the Mets’ offer for Verlander, and Crane also saying the biggest needs were an outfield player and a catcher, it would not make sense for Houston to spend big on another pitcher, especially one that would be fourth or fifth in the rotation.

However, it would make sense to bring one on a budget, with the promise of competing for another championship.

Some names worth taking a look at could be Nathan Eovaldi, who is from Houston, Noah Syndergaard, who the Astros saw in the World Series, and Corey Kluber. All three pitchers had an ERA of 4.34 or less in the 2022 season, and according to Sportico, are anticipated to have a market value less than $17 million, which also offers the Astros flexibility to improve other positions.

What the Astros do, only Crane, and probably Jeff Bagwell, know. One thing is for sure, regardless if a new face is brought in or not, Brown deserves a spot in Houston’s 2023 starting rotation.

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