HOUSTON (AP) — Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. wasn’t born in Houston, but he sure loves it now.
Hailing from Tampa, Florida, McCullers might be the most vocal an Astro has ever been about his love for the Space City.
“I only got one thing to say — and I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,” he said in a TV interview after Houston clinched the ALCS. “Bury me in The H.”
McCullers will represent his beloved, adopted city when he starts Game 3 of the World Series against Noah Syndergaard and the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, where Houston will look to take a 2-1 Series lead.
While his right arm tries to pitch the Astros to a victory, his left brings reminders of the city he has come to love oh so much.
Tattooed on his left triceps is an astronaut with the Commissioner’s Trophy on his chest. The bottom of the astronaut morphs into a dripping, upside-down depiction of Houston’s downtown skyline, a nod to what the city went through when it flooded after Hurricane Harvey.
Below that in neat block letters are the words: ‘BE SOMEONE’ — a spot-on recreation of iconic local graffiti that adorns a railway bridge on Interstate 45 just south of downtown, not far from Minute Maid Park.
“Houston’s one of those cities where the majority of the people who now reside here and call it home have come here to try to make something of themselves,” he said. “And I found myself as a young man in that position and just really feel like I resonate with the grit and determination that they strive for and just have felt connected to the city since I’ve been here.”
McCullers was drafted by the Astros in the first round of the 2012 draft and made his MLB debut three years later. He’s pitched seven seasons in Houston, sitting out in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
McCullers and his wife Kara are residents of Houston and have worked for years to make it a better place. They were involved in many charitable causes in the city in the wake of Harvey in 2017 and are passionate about animal rescue. Through the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation, the couple supports no-kill shelters and pet adoptions throughout Houston and beyond.
The 29-year-old McCullers is under contract through the 2026 season but hopes to stay with the Astros long after that.
“My adult life, since I was 21, Houston’s really most of what I’ve known,” he said. “So, I think I just really felt a connection to the city and to the people. I’ve loved my time here, and this is my home and will hopefully be my home for as long as I play.”
McCullers will pitch in the World Series for the first time since starting Game 7 in 2017, when Houston beat the Dodgers 5-1 to win its first title.
Though McCullers started the game that gave Houston a championship, he was more remembered that postseason for his performance in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.
Pitching in relief, McCullers threw 24 straight curveballs to six batters to get the last six outs of the game and send Houston to the Series.
McCullers does have a nasty curveball, but that night he threw it not because it was a particularly good pitch but out of necessity. He’d landed awkwardly on a pitch earlier in the game and his leg felt weird when he threw his fastball.
“And I threw the first breaking ball, and I was like: ‘oh, that didn’t hurt,’” he said. “I threw it again and I was like: ‘yeah, that didn’t hurt either.’ So just kind of kept rolling with it.”
Don’t look for a curveball extravaganza Monday.
“That was a special type of night for me and kind of an event,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to top that. I think I’m more of a little bit of a complete pitcher now (than) to rip off 24 in a row, but you never know.”
He missed the 2019 trip after Tommy John surgery and had to sit out the Series last year after injuring his forearm in the ALCS.
“There moments mean so much to me and they mean more than they meant early in my career,” McCullers said. “I’m really truly blessed to be a part of this group. This is a once in a lifetime run.”
His forearm injury caused him to miss most of this season. He didn’t make his season debut until Aug. 13 and made just eight starts in the regular season.
He’s started two games this postseason, pitching six scoreless innings in Houston’s 18-inning win over Seattle in Game 3 of the ALDS and starting the clinching game of the ALCS win over the Yankees.
“He’s a big-game pitcher, wants the ball,” Houston pitching coach Josh Miller said. “We want him out there and excited to see him go (Monday). He’s got elite curveball-slider combination with a sinker and a changeup to boot, and he’ll be ready to rise to the occasion.”
McCullers has pitched in 18 postseason games in six seasons, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA.
The Astros lost to Atlanta in six games at last year’s World Series. After punching their ticket to this year’s Fall Classic, manager Dusty Baker asked why this year’s team was better equipped than the 2021 squad to win it all.
“Well, number one, we got Lance McCullers that we didn’t have going into (that) World Series,” Baker said.
McCullers joins Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and fellow starter Justin Verlander as the only players remaining from that 2017 championship team tainted because of an illegal sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball. McCullers has been subjected to the vitriol from that cheating and knows that many will never let the Astros live it down.
He tries to ignore the negativity and focus on the support the team has always had from friends, family and Astros fans. But he knows that winning again may help change people’s opinion of the Astros past and present.
“I think it still means a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “And I think a championship would go a long way with helping guys maybe who aren’t here anymore feel that validation.”
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