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.”

#Neversettle
“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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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