HIGH HEAT

Exclusive: Astros' Lance McCullers dishes on new arsenal of pitches and getting yoked up

11 high velocity questions for Lance McCullers. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Houston Astros pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida, last week.

What a week to start training camp in the warm Florida sun while Houstonians froze in their living rooms like Clark Griswald stuck in the attic. It was a breath of warm air for many Astros who call Houston their year-round home. Many already began relief efforts to help those impacted by the deep freeze.

One of those players actively making a difference is Lance McCullers Jr. Less than 24 hours after arriving for his sixth big league camp, McCullers began making calls to his staff at the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation to help those suffering the effects of the winter storm.

McCullers is looking for a healthy 2021 after several seasons of dealing with injuries. This year, he only looks to continue his improvement. I caught up with McCullers Jr. to discuss his preparation for the 2021 season.

SportsMap: Happy Spring Training, Lance. How much were you looking forward to spring training in the warm, Florida sun?

Lance McCullers Jr.: I consider Houston my home now. I have lived there for six years. I did just beat the storm before I got down to Spring Training. We are down here in West Palm Beach, but our hearts and thoughts are back in Houston.

SM: Your foundation plays a significant role in the Houston community, and you recently announced on Instagram that the Lance McCullers Jr. foundation would create a plan to help those affected by the freeze. How can Houstonians take part?

LM: The Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation will be setting up a plan to try and help as many Houstonians as we can. Unfortunately, we couldn't control power, and in this case, that is one of the most crucial aspects that needed to be fixed. Now that power is being restored; we are putting a plan in place to get people fresh food and water. We are also helping the animal community with emergency transports and veterinarian needs.

SM: Dusty Baker said you looked like Hercules rolling into training camp. How have you dialed in your fitness and nutrition regime?

LM: Last year in camp, I came in good physical condition, but I was 10 to 12 pounds under what I was hoping to be because of my rehabilitation schedule (from Tommy John surgery in 2019). I stopped rehabilitation in November 2019, and I took off about a month to rest and recover before I started training again in December. This year, being fully healthy, I started training right away on November 1. That has helped me get the extra weight back on. I've made huge strides in the nutrition and recovery department, and I am hoping and expecting it to keep me healthy. I'm feeling great. I'm starting Spring Training in a great place, and I'm looking to maintain it. The hard part during the season is, as your body wears and breaks down, it's hard to stay in excellent condition. I think I have a plan in place to make it happen and to pitch the best baseball of my career.

SM: What was your favorite quarantine meal?

LM: My favorite quarantine meal was Banza pasta with roasted vegetables topped with marinara sauce and some avocado.

SM: What goals do you have set for Spring Training to be in optimal pitching shape come Opening Day?

LM: In years past, I've always gone into camp saying, "I'm going to work on one pitch specifically." That's because when we go from the season to the offseason to training camp, it's a small amount of time to work on things. We're in season from April to the end of October, and then we have a little bit of rest time. Typically, we are spending the back half of November, December, and January just trying to get in physical shape and to be healthy going into camp. When I had Tommy John, it allowed me to work on pitches like my changeup. I've also added a cutter and other weapons. My goal for this camp is to come in, be healthy, and build up all of my pitches to be ready to go by my first start in April.

SM: Are you pitching every five days in Spring Training, or is it a different routine from the regular season?

LM: I'm building up to that. I have two bullpens before my first two live batting practices against hitters. I'll throw a few more bullpens, and then I start throwing in live games. I do throw every five to six days down here, depending on the schedule. We are a little handcuffed with the schedule because of the COVID-19 protocol with the way it's realigned. We aren't going to get as many off days as previous Spring Training camps, but that can be a good thing because it can prime my body for the regular season.

SM: You have improved nearly every year in MLB. What long-term goals did you create at the beginning of your career that produced this consistent formula?

LM: When you first get called up, you're just happy to be here. After that first year goes by, whether it is successful or not, you start to understand the truth in that saying, "staying here is harder than getting here." Every year new guys are coming into camp that want your spot. It is a very tough competition, especially for a team that expects to compete for a World Series. Look at the guys that I have pitched with, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Dallas Kuechel. These guys are generational talents. I am lucky to have been in the rotation with these guys. It pushed me. My health hasn't matched where I had hoped it would be up to this point in my career. My ability to have successful seasons when I am on the field has been there. The last thing for me to figure out is how to have continued success while being on the field more often.

SM: The hair is flowing going into Spring Training. Will you be sticking with the man bun, or will you switch to the tight fade once the dog days of summer roll around?

LM: I think the man bun is going to be around for a while. These first days of camp, my hair has been a bit wind-blown. My hair gets curly in dry weather, so I try to keep it wet. There might be a small trim that happens somewhere along the way, but it won't be Jurassic.

SM: How do you spend your off days in West Palm Beach?

LM: Because of the COVID-19 protocols, we are confined to the hotel room or the beach. Luckily, Florida has a lot of beautiful beaches and outdoor activities. Most of our off-days are spent at the beach or pool.

SM: Will you and Carlos Correa keep "The Walkout" UFC podcast going through the season?

LM: Absolutely. We are signed with SiriusXM. We did it last year during the season, and it became great for us. The pandemic came with many restrictions on the road, and being able to do a podcast together made it fun during that time. The podcast is here to stay, and we are looking forward to keeping it going this year.

SM: What will your 2021 pre-game playlist consist of?

LM: Spotify recently added a personalized "time capsule" playlist, consisting of all the songs I used to listen to. Roddy Rich and Drake have albums dropping soon, so we'll see how the first quarter of 2021 goes, music-wise.

To support the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation winter relief fund, go to https://e.givesmart.com/events/kLW/

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Carlos Correa had a big home run Saturday night. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

With four wins in a row, including the first two of this series, Houston had a chance to keep their momentum going to lock up a series win on Saturday in this four-game set. Although Texas would make it interesting late, the Astros would hold them off to get the victory.

Final Score: Astros 6, Rangers 5

Astros' Record: 23-17, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Luis Garcia (1-3)

Losing Pitcher: Dane Dunning (2-3)

Action in the first

After getting trounced the night prior, the Rangers managed to grab early momentum with a run to start the scoring Saturday night against Luis Garcia. It came after a one-out triple set up a sac fly, giving Texas a 1-0 lead. Houston quickly took control back in their favor, though, putting up four in the bottom of the inning on a two-RBI single by Alex Bregman and a two-run homer by Carlos Correa, making it 4-1 Astros.

The scoreboard went quiet after that inning, with both teams slowing down at the plate. Garcia put together a decent night, allowing just the one run over five innings of work, erasing some runners throughout the night. His final line: 5.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 0 HR, 94 P.

Rangers tighten it up late

Bryan Abreu was the first reliever to enter for Houston, taking over for Garcia in the top of the sixth. He worked around a leadoff single, keeping it a three-run game, then returned for a 1-2-3 top of the seventh. Correa led off with a double in the bottom of the inning, setting up a two-run Kyle Tucker homer, extending his recent hot streak and the lead to 6-1.

Ryne Stanek took over on the mound for Houston in the top of the eighth but worked himself into trouble with a single and walk to set up a three-run homer by Joey Gallo to make it a two-run game at 6-4. He would manage just one out before a walk would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Brandon Bielak. Bielak would allow a run while getting the final two outs, making it 6-5.

Astros secure the series

After a scoreless bottom of the eighth, Ryan Pressly would try to notch another save and close the door on the Rangers. He would get the job done, sitting the Rangers down in order, keeping Houston's winning streak intact.

Up Next: The finale of this four-game set will start at 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Lance McCullers JR. (3-1, 3.10 ERA), fresh off of a recent gem, will look to continue his success for the Astros, while Kyle Gibson (3-0, 2.28) will try to stay perfect on the season for the Rangers.

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