Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Fennelly: Jesuit's McCullers fighting through growing pains in majors

ST. PETERSBURG — It was homecoming weekend. Hugs and kisses, handshakes and cheers were wonderful as always for former Jesuit High star Lance McCullers. And maybe everyone will show up at his parents' house in Carrollwood and Lance Sr. and his wife, Stacie, will make it a party.

It still wasn't everything Lance the Younger wanted. The 22-year-old Astros pitcher gave up four runs in the first two innings Friday night against the Rays at Tropicana Field. His team couldn't catch up in a 4-3 loss.

"It's more frustrating the way it happened, not because it's here," McCullers said. "A loss is a loss, whether it's here or we're playing a game in Australia."

Chalk it up to growing pains. Or lingering effects from the layoff caused by shoulder pain, nothing structural but enough to sideline McCullers for several weeks until his season began in mid May.

Throw this in: Houston's game notes said McCullers is the second-youngest starting pitcher in the majors. He was the youngest until 19-year-old Julio Urias joined the Dodgers rotation.

"He's still developing," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's not a finished product. He's a young kid. He's got elite stuff. … But there's still a learning curve for him this year."

Last season, McCullers went 6-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts with 129 strikeouts in 1252/3 innings. He was an important rookie piece of an upstart Houston team that crashed the playoffs, won the AL wild-card game and nearly knocked the eventual world champion Royals from the postseason. McCullers left the mound in the seventh inning in Game 4 ahead. The Royals rallied from 6-2 down to force Game 5, which they won in Kansas City. McCullers doesn't much like the Royals.

This season hasn't broken the way McCullers or the Astros expected. He is 3-2 with a 4.54 ERA in six starts and Houston, despite winning nine of its past 14 heading into Saturday, is 29-34. McCullers doesn't much like either of those things, either.

"But it's still there for us," he said a few days before his Trop start. "And nothing has changed in what I think I can do."

That's how he attacked last offseason. I joined him one day and watched him throw long toss and swing an ax at a tree stump before heading to the gym for a similarly fiendish workout. McCullers also got married. The honeymoon was in Italy.

"He'd have me sit on his shoulders while he did his squats," Kara McCullers said with a laugh in February. "I thought, 'Is this for real?' I'm on my honeymoon, in the hotel room, and I'm on his shoulders so he can do squats."

"I'm not so sure if it was last year he threw so many extra innings than he had before, or maybe he did a little too much in the offseason to try to get really ready," said Lance McCullers Sr., who pitched seven seasons in the big leagues.

Back to his son. Lance McCullers loves pitcher-against-hitter.

"It's two lions going for the same piece of meat," he said.

But he has yet to dial in that aggression in 2016, at least to start games. That has cost him in early innings. Coming off his best start of the season, seven innings and nine strikeouts in a win over Oakland, McCullers fell back into the slow-start trap against the Rays before settling down. In fact, he ended his Friday outing by striking out the side in the sixth.

"I think the non-aggressiveness early, and we've seen it in a couple of games, is due to him having some arm injuries in spring training," Houston pitching coach Brent Strom said. "There's always that fear of jumping in the pool right away.

"He's done a really remarkable job of rehabbing. He's altered his delivery some to take some of the stress off the shoulder. It's just a matter of trust as he goes, trust that he's going to be okay. That's where you see the sharp difference between his first two and last two innings."

"My arm actually feels good," McCullers said. "Just got to figure it out, how to get outs early, consistently. I'll figure it out, get over the hump."

A homecoming is a home­coming, but there's still just one piece of meat.

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