1. June 3, 2015, vs Orioles
It is wild considering the great seasons McCullers has had, as well as the fact that he has started some of the biggest games in franchise history (including game 7 of the 2017 World Series), that his best career appearance was his 4th-ever big league start.
When a 21-year-old Lance McCullers Jr. took the mound on a Wednesday night in June 2015, many fans still did not yet know his name. He had thrown just 15 MLB innings before this game, and the Astros were off to a surprisingly great start to the year, but they were coming off a 92-loss campaign and 3 consecutive 100-loss seasons before that. Tal’s Hill still graced center field at Minute Maid Park, and Houston’s opponents in the Manny Machado and Adam Jones-led Baltimore Orioles were the defending AL East champions. Especially from the perspective of an Astros fan, this day is part of an era that seems unrecognizable compared to now.
To date, this remains the only complete game that Lance McCullers Jr. has ever thrown. He struck out 11 batters, walked none, allowed 4 hits, and a single earned run. He emptied the tank on 107 pitches, and a 2-out RBI single by the now-retired Delmon Young in the 4th inning was the only blemish on his line. After that single by Young, McCullers retired 16 of the final 17 batters that came to the plate for Baltimore that night. It would’ve been 16 in a row to end the game if not for a 2-out single by Adam Jones in the top of the 9th.
Veteran slugger Chris Carter (remember that name?) went deep twice in this game for Houston, including a go-ahead solo shot in the 5th inning, to propel them to a 3-1 win. This improved the Astros’ record on the young season to 34-20, and they would go on to record their first winning season since 2008 when they were still in the NL Central. It would end up starting a streak of 6 winning campaigns (not including the 60-game 2020), which will improve to 7 in 2022.
The Astros have still been an elite team in McCullers’ absence, but he has been missed. He was an instrumental part of the core that made it back to the World Series a year ago. You’ll notice that he allowed at least a run in all 3 of the starts I chose to highlight; he has thrown 6-7 innings of shutout ball plenty of times, but I just decided to give a nod to his outings that have ended up being career outliers.
McCullers has had a great career despite multiple lengthy absences due to injury, and while he’ll likely be on some sort of innings limit tonight given his injury, the prospect of him dominating on the mound late in the year once again is enticing as the Astros gear up for another deep run.