Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers trying to move on from a really bad inning in Minnesota.
Like every other Astros starting pitcher this year, Lance McCullers was breezing through the start of the 2018 season. As he toed the rubber against the Twins to start what was to be his 14th inning of the year, he boasted a 2.83 FIP with 22 strikeouts.
Then he walked Max Kepler. And then Byron Buxton. A single followed his 23rd strikeout and just like that (snaps fingers), the floodgates didn’t just open, they were blown off their hinges.
Single. Walk. Triple. Single. Out. Home run.
A 1-0 Houston lead was suddenly, unexpectedly, an 8-1 deficit. (And, eventually, a 9-8 loss.) McCullers was knocked out after just three-and-two-thirds innings – the third shortest start of his career – as his ERA more than doubled over the course of those nine batters. By day’s end, it sat at a ghastly 7.71.
But we’d foolish to focus too much attention on that fateful fourth inning in Minnesota. Sure, every pitcher would be better if we could just remove their worst inning. At the end of the day, that’s not how baseball works, of course.
But what McCullers’ has done in his other 33 innings has sparkled and bears mentioning: 2.45 FIP; 1.64 ERA; 1.03 WHIP; 11.7 K/9. Thirty-three percent of the batter’s McCullers has faced this year have walked angrily back to the dugout after striking out.
There’s a chance he was going to pitch in the shadows this season, anyway, given that Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole are off to historically good starts. McCullers, however, has been quietly matching their greatness, pitch-for-pitch, while flying under radars because he still carries the scar of that one bad inning.
McCullers is now third on the team in FIP (2.98) – and nipping at Cole’s 2.83 mark. On Thursday, he’ll face the New York Yankees for the first time since he pitched four scoreless innings last October to help the Astros win game 7 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees, of course, are loaded offensively this year. They’ve scored more runs and hit more home runs than any other team in baseball – and that’s with Giancarlo Stanton off to a slow start (he’s slugging .440, a near-200 point drop from his MVP campaign last season).
There’s reason to fear these Yankees.
They’ve won nine in a row, including a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels (which helped the Astros claw their way back into first place). They’re averaging seven runs/game during the win streak with a +46 run differential.
But the Yankees haven’t faced a pitching rotation quite like Houston’s. One in which its fourth-best pitcher might very well be one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Minus that one inning.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***