THE HERO WE NEED

How this Houston Astros star does his most heroic work off the field

McCullers has always been hands-on with dogs. Photo courtesy of the Lance McCullers, Jr. Foundation.

Saturday, August 13 marked the successful, long-awaited, faith-restored return of a real-life Houston hero — who happens to pitch for the Houston Astros.

Lance McCullers Jr. threw a baseball in earnest for the first time since Game 4 of last year’s American League Divisional Series. He was sidelined for 305 days with a right flexor pronator strain (a body part I never knew existed. If you can’t pull it out with a tweezer in the game Operation, it’s not part of the human anatomy.)

It took him that long, forever in baseball terms, to return to the Astros and Minute Maid Park. How’d he do?

He struck out five, allowed only two hits over six innings, received three standing ovations from 34,000 fans, and got the W in the Astros 8-0 victory over the (for some odd reason) pesky Oakland A’s on Hall of Fame Weekend.

“I was a little bit anxious before the game,” McCullers said after his win. “Everybody’s been so supportive and really have helped me get back to this point. I’m talking about the guys in the clubhouse and they were all excited for me to be back today.”

Lance back = best news for the future
With Jake Odorizzi gone and the possibility that Justin Verlander (who loves him some Nancy’s Hustle burgers) may leave after this season, McCullers’ return was good news for the Astros’ drive to the World Series this year, and the next, and the next.

He’s already carved into Houston legend for the time he threw 24 straight curveballs against the Yankees to propel the Astros to the World Series in 2017. Watch that insane performance here:

McCullers throws 24 straight curveballs to close out the AL Pennantwww.youtube.com

And, McCullers was the starting pitcher against the Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series when the Astros won their first and only championship. As Yahoo Sports pointed out, McCullers completely owned the boys in pinstripes.

But that’s not why he’s a hero in my book.

More than a sports hero
McCullers and his wife Kara are animal lovers and they’ve put their passion into relentless action. The Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation supports local pet organizations like Houston Pets Alive and Rescued Pet Movement. The foundation’s goal is to promote pet adoption and fostering, raise awareness and donations for animal shelters and continue the journey to make Houston a no-kill community. The motto is “Protecting Pets, Creating Families.”

“Since partnering with the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation, thousands of pets are being saved each month that otherwise didn’t have a chance. Thousands of homeless dogs and cats’ lives have been saved,” Rescued Pet Movement notes. “To date, because of LMJF, almost 60,000 homeless dogs and cats’ lives have been saved.”

Photo courtesy of the Lance McCullers, Jr. Foundation

McCullers didn’t just attach his name to the foundation and step back. As we frequently cover here, he personally shows up to help locals in need: whether it’s handing out Thanksgiving turkeys or supplying 10,000 meals to the Houston Food Bank during the pandemic. “This city has embraced me and my family,” he told us in 2019, “everywhere we go, people couldn’t be more gracious to us.”

No big surprise that he handles his foundation the same way—he hosts events, advocates tirelessly for animals, and gets his hands dirty supporting efforts to save pets lives. To donate or volunteer to his organization, visit the How to Help section on the official site.

The Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation is a donor-advised fund at Athletes and Causes, a nonprofit with federal tax exempt status and a public charity.

Photo courtesy of the Lance McCullers, Jr. Foundation

Here’s the cherry on top why I love and support his foundation. He reminds people that 75-percent of dogs available for adoption in shelters are mixed breeds. I got one of those sitting next to me right now.

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These next six games will be very telling. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Houston has six games left in the 2022 regular season, two three-game series in which they need just one more win, or a Yankees loss, to secure the top seed for the AL side of the postseason bracket. They've accomplished what they set out to do over the 162-game drudge that is the regular season, so you're likely to see them use the opportunity to get some players off their feet in the remaining games.

Even so, having one of the best teams means that while putting out a lineup with some starters missing, they can still beat most teams on any given day. So then, what could that mean for the teams still vying for postseason spots or positioning in the remaining games?

Affecting the NL playoffs

It's a relatively sure bet that if they haven't locked up that top seed by the time they enter the final three games, they will before that last series is over. That means that when the Phillies come to Minute Maid Park to close out the season next week, Philadelphia will have much higher stakes in those games than Houston.

Under the expanded playoff format starting this season, the two best teams in each league receive a bye, while the remaining four teams square off in a Wild Card series, with all those games taking place at the better seed's stadium. That means teams will be very motivated to secure their best Wild Card positioning.

As of now, the Phillies hold just a half-game lead over the Brewers for the third and final Wild Card spot for the National League. Things could change this weekend, but whether they still lead or have fallen back and have ground to makeup, the games will matter to them against the Astros.

They also sit 2.5 games behind the Padres, meaning that Philadelphia could potentially be looking at a chance to jump into the second Wild Card spot. However, it's questionable if that's an envious position or not. With the juggernaut battle between the Mets and Braves coming down to the wire, with one team winning the NL East and a first-round bye and the other starting with home-field advantage in a Wild Card series, whoever gets the second Wild Card spot is going to be heading to face a really tough, and potentially angry, team on the road.

It will make things interesting for the Phillies when they face the Astros. They could be playing for their playoff lives or jockeying for position. Either way, the games will be meaningful.

Affecting the AL playoffs

There's a similar scenario at play for the American League side of things with the Astros' three-game series against the Rays this weekend. Just like the Phillies, the Rays enter the weekend holding on to the third and final spot in the AL Wild Card race.

Tampa Bay is only 0.5 games back of the Mariners for the second spot and two games back of the Blue Jays for the first Wild Card spot. Farther behind, the Orioles still have a chance for something crazy to happen, sitting five games behind.

So based on the result of their series with the Astros and how the other teams fare this weekend and in the final stretch of games, the Rays have a range of outcomes that could cause havoc in the AL bracket. They could end up taking the top Wild Card spot and hosting a series, traveling to face the Blue Jays, Mariners, or Guardians, or, less likely, missing the playoffs altogether.

This variance in positioning could have ramifications for the Astros directly in the ALDS round as well. The Astros are likely to be favored regardless of the three potential teams they face; however, some matchups would make things easier.

Houston went 2-4 against the Blue Jays this year and are currently up 3-0 on the Rays with the three games remaining in the season series. And while the Astros took the season series 12-7 against division-rival Seattle, that could give the Mariners all the more reason to be ultra-motivated for the ALDS if they faced the Astros.

So, while the Astros may not have any direct milestones to play for other than locking up their top seed, these remaining six games will have plenty of storylines and drama to follow for them and their opponent.

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