Star Power

Q&A with Lance McCullers: His 10 steps to winning a World Series title

Lance McCullers started the season off strong getting his first win of the season against the Rangers. Elsa/Getty Images

Steven Devadanam is editor of CultureMap/Houston. This article originally appeared there.

After 56 years, the World Series championship banner has unfurled over Minute Maid Park. The chunky championship rings glitter from the players’ hands. The Houston Astros sit comfortably atop the AL West division.

Lance McCullers, Jr. wants more.

A fan favorite on an Astros team already teeming with fan favorites, McCullers has cemented his status in the annals of Houston sports lore with his tenacious, never-quit attitude, and his ability to capitalize on crucial moments. In a city that values clutch performances, McCullers will long be remembered for fighting through injuries during the 2017 regular season and his subsequent playoff grit. The pitcher’s 24 consecutive breaking balls in the Game 7 win against the New York Yankees — a win that clinched the American League and sent the Astros to the World Series — is a YouTube clinic.

The fiery ace hardly backed down in the World Series; he famously made it clear he wanted the ball in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But it was his batting that made history: McCullers drove in a pivotal run, the first of his career. It was also the first RBI by a pitcher in a winner-take-all World Series game since 1986, the first RBI by a pitcher in any World Series game since 2012, and the first RBI by an American League pitcher in a World Series game since 2009. 

In the 2018 season, McCullers has already picked up where he left off, dominating the Texas Rangers on March 31 with 10 strikeouts. The 2017 American League All-Star has emerged as a powerful presence on a revamped Astros pitching staff, one that experts predict could help lead the team to another World Series. (McCullers also scored serious homer points when he recently donned a gold championship grill.) 

When he’s not throwing his devastating curveball past hapless hitters, McCullers, 24, is throwing his support behind animal welfare causes with his Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation. The organization partners with local rescue groups to raise awareness of Houston’s stray animal population, empty shelters, and promote no-kill policies.

“Our main focus is pet adoption, medical aid and grants, and informing the public about the kill rate at shelters,” McCullers tells CultureMap. His organization aims to bring more spay and neutering clinics to Houston, as well as a state-of-the-art, mobile spay and neuter bus. “We’re looking at treating up to 100 dogs a day,” says McCullers,” so that  by the end of the year, we’ve helped thousands of animals.” McCullers, who says his eyes were opened to the challenges of post-storm animal rescue operations, adds that the proposed bus that can double as a rescue and relief vehicle for animals during catastrophic emergencies, such as Hurricane Harvey.

Astros fans can join McCullers and his teammates Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel May 17th for the second annual Team Up for Kids and K9s at Tootsies. The event will help raise money for causes that the three players’ support, including animal rescue efforts, children’s charities, and other community initiatives throughout the Greater Houston area.

CultureMap caught up with McCullers, who shares his 10 steps for another Astros World Series run and championship. 

Play for something more
“Our World Series run, because of how long it’s been, the heartbreaks, and then Harvey — it was so much more than baseball. A million people were came to the parade. Some of them were holding signs saying, ‘I may have no home, but the Astros won it all.’ The were carrying pictures of loved ones who had passed who had brought them to the first games. Moments like that stick with you way more than the moments in the games. Last year, we knew we were playing for a lot more than ourselves.”

Forget failure
“The team mentality, the grit we showed. Failure is a real part of this game, but instead of crumbling under that pressure of failure, we kinda let it all hang out, and played our tails off. We showed people that no matter what you’re up against, never settling, and refusing to quit can get you a long way. I think a lot of people draw inspiration from that, and from our team.”

Take it day-by-day
“Last year’s in the past.We’re the center of attention. There’s more media around, more people around with these high expectations. Last year, I don’t know if we were even considered the AL West favorites. Now, people are picking us to win it all, again. We’ve seen what winning a championship can do for your hometown, and we want it again. So we’re taking it day by day.”

Never forget the chip on our shoulders
“A lot of the guys here play with a chip on their shoulder — I know I live with a chip on my shoulder. Our leader, Jose Altuve, lives with a chip on his shoulder. Guys like Dallas Keuchel, too. Some of these guys, though they’re stars now, they had a long road to get here. I was blessed to be the 41st overall pick in 2012, but there were arguments that i could've been a top-5 pick in that draft. There have always been doubts about me: ‘he’s too small, he’s not gonna be good enough.’ There are still doubts about me out there, so I play with a chip on my shoulder, and so do a lot of guys on this team. That’s part of what makes us so great.”

“We don’t want to be one of these teams that only wins one championship, or only makes one deep playoff run, then we’re into a rebuild. We want to be a contender for years to come. ‘Never settle’ is a good follow-up from ‘earn history.’ We went through the three biggest teams in baseball, with the three biggest payrolls — Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. We earned our championship and we earned history.”

Play like underdogs
“We’re still playing with that feeling that we’re the underdog. There are people out there that don’t fully respect who we are as a team, and what we accomplished. So we have that drive, and that want. We’re gonna continue to draw on that underdog feeling for motivation.”

A new standard
“We’re still a World Series-caliber team. We’ve retained most of our guys, and we’ve added some really good relievers. For us to say we’re trying to accomplish anything less than a world championship would be a lie. And that’s a good thing. Last year, winning the World Series was our goal — even if that wasn’t popular belief in the media. But that was our internal goal, and we went out and accomplished it. We’re in the business of winning the World Series now.”

The pitching
“We have five guys in our rotation, and guys in our pen this year who are starter quality, or even No. 1 guys on other teams’ staff. The depth and amount of talent we have is pretty extraordinary. The front office has done an amazing job of collecting numerous guys who can play different roles. We have five guys who can sling it, and who deserve a lot of respect and recognition.”

Watch for this key player
“I think Marwin Gonzalez could be recognized a little more. Every year, he comes in and does everything the team asks him to do. He’s a true pro: he’ll play first base, he’ll play second, he’ll play third, he’ll play shortstop, he’ll play outfield — any position. He’s a switch-hitter and a team guy. Last year, he had a real breakout season: He always comes up with big hits — he’s a 300 hitter,  20-plus home runs, plays every position on the field, and plays them well. He could’ve been an All-Star.”

More Twitter shade...maybe
“My wife wants me to tone down my Twitter antics. She says I’m a really nice guy, but it may not come across that way on Twitter. I don’t take social media too seriously: people get really sensitive — they’ll be the first to throw shade, or be critical, but if you snap back, you’re the bad guy. But I think people like the way I interact. I’m just trying to be myself and have fun.”

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Houston dropped two of three

Astros drop series finale to Oakland, A's win series

Jose Urquidy couldn't hold Oakland back on Saturday. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With Oakland finally ending their drought against the Astros on Friday night to split the first two games of the series, and with the Angels staying in step with them as both teams started the day 6-2, the Astros needed a win to keep momentum in their favor on Saturday.

Instead, Oakland would outslug Houston once again to take the series finale and take the series win. The loss moves Houston to 6-3 and down to second place, at least for now, until the 6-2 Angels complete their game on Saturday evening.

Final Score: A's 7, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 6-3, second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Frankie Montas (1-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (0-1)

Urquidy gives up four over six

Much like the night before, Oakland was able to bring in runs against Houston's starter, this time Jose Urquidy, Saturday afternoon in their second time through the order. Their first time through, Urquidy was cruising, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings on a single in the top of the third.

Things shifted in the top of the fourth, with the A's getting back-to-back singles to set the stage for a two-run frame with dual RBI-singles to take a 2-0 lead. Oakland doubled that in the fifth, getting a two-out single to set up a two-run homer by Ramon Laureano to make it 4-0. Urquidy would go on to finish six innings, but with no run support to that point, would leave in line for the loss. His final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 93 P.

A's pad their lead before Houston gets on the board

Meanwhile, although getting five hits, the Astros could not get anything on the board against Frankie Montas through six innings. Brandon Bielak took over out of the bullpen for Urquidy in the top of the seventh, but after loading the bases, he would allow a dagger two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 deficit for Houston.

With Montas starting the seventh looking to face a batter or two before Oakland moved to their bullpen, Kyle Tucker would finally get Houston on the board with a leadoff solo home run, cutting the lead to 6-1 and ending Montas' day. Houston would get a two-out rally going, with an RBI-double by Jose Altuve followed by an RBI-triple by Michael Brantley to make it a three-run game at 6-3.

Oakland takes the series win

Ryne Stanek tried to keep it a three-run game and give the Astros a chance to stay in it in the top of the eighth but instead would give up a two-out solo home run to push Oakland's lead back to four. That 7-3 score would go final as Houston would go scoreless in the eighth and ninth.

Up Next: Houston will have a day off on Sunday before continuing this homestand Monday night by welcoming in Detroit and former manager A.J. Hinch for three games. In the series opener, the Tigers will send young star Casey Mize (0-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound, while the Astros will get another start by Zack Greinke (1-0, 1.38 ERA).

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