Houston Astros ace Lance McCullers, Jr. opens up about his comeback, World Series game plan, and life in The H
Lance McCullers, Jr. is seriously busy.
The 2022 World Series is just hours away at Minute Maid Park, a staggering fourth appearance by the Houston Astros in the past six years. Not surprisingly, the team is in go-time mode as it prepares to face the Philadelphia Phillies. The entire city is buzzing with a “this is our year” frenzy, and on this crisp morning in late October, it seems every third local is sporting an Astros jersey.
A veteran, team-first, clubhouse leader and pivotal pitching presence in the Astros’ playoff run, McCullers is ready for the task.
But first, the fiery, never-back-down star who boasts a nationwide army of fans and also one of the nastiest sliders and curveballs in Major League Baseball, has to tackle another major task — one that demands the famously focused McCullers’ undivided attention. It’s serious.
“I’m coloring with my daughter,” he tells CultureMap via phone as we plan a visit to his home. He’s immediately interrupted by a tiny, impossibly adorable, high-pitched voice. “We’re not coloring, Daddy,” explains his cherubic — and clearly, also famously focused — two-year-old daughter, Ava. “We’re drawing.”
“Sorry,” he replies to her with an apologetic tone familiar to dads of young daughters everywhere, and then, back to us: “We’re drawing.”
Call it a comeback
With Game 1 of the World Series drawing near, McCullers is taking a short break — a sort of quiet before the storm — as he lounges in his home office. Kicking back in a black T-shirt, black shorts, and a backwards hat, he’s just back from New York City, where he started Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. McCullers helped the Astros dispatch the pinstriped rivals — and silence swarms of NYC trash talkers, who seem to perpetually live in 2017, in the process.
(Speaking of 2017 and the Yankees, McCullers’ epic save in Game 7 of the ALCS versus the Yankees — where he not only threw four shutout innings but also fired off an astounding 24 straight curveballs — is a YouTube must-watch for fans.)
Before his Yankees takedown, McCullers was crucial in the Astros’ tense showdown with the Seattle Mariners in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, which went to near historic 18 innings. Dominating the Mariners in front of a hostile crowd, he held the Mariners scoreless over six innings. With that seven-strikeout win, McCullers moved to second in Astros history for most postseason strikeouts — 69 — behind his white-hot, Cy-Young-Award-bound teammate Justin Verlander (who has 96).
Though he’s no stranger to World Series appearances, the veteran McCullers still feels a bit of newness in this year’s World Series run. “It feels similar but different in a way for me,” he says, “just because I was not here in ’19 — I was rehabbing for TJ [the serious Tommy John surgery that requires extensive rehab]. And then obviously last year, although I was very much part of the team — pitched the full season and pitched us through the ALDS.”
Pain — and gain
He’s referring to how he was forced to miss last year’s title run due to a nagging forearm injury, a flexor tendon strain that hounded him and nearly cost him this year, as well, with potential surgery looming. Far more afraid of letting his teammates down than any physical pain he’s endured, McCullers was forced to navigate the surreal purgatory in pro sports — injured, but still with the team.
“There's always a weird dynamic when you're not playing, but you’re still around,” he recalls. “Just because of the amount of time I’ve been here and how well I was pitching, there was just an assumed leadership role. So, you try to fill that leadership role still, even though you can’t play.”
Always one to shy away from credit and instead deflect to his teammates, McCullers recalls that one of the worst feelings was receiving what should have been a proud token, the 2021 American League Championship ring. Worse, he knew last year would be his final with dear friend and teammate Carlos Correa, who would later depart for the Minnesota Twins in free agency.
“Getting our rings this year from last year was one of the most bitter feelings,” he says. “I do believe that last year in particular, I could have made a huge difference. And then, you know, Carlos was here last year — and I was not here — and I knew he probably wasn't gonna come back. I really wanted to have that memory with him. So, when I got that ring, all those feelings kind of came back.”
Even the sports media and fan chatter claiming that the Astros would’ve taken home the title last year if McCullers had been active did little to help his feeling of loss. “It’s very flattering when people are like, ‘oh, if Lance would have been there, we would’ve won,” McCullers says. “It's a compliment to me, but a sad statement — all at the same time.”
Plagued by pain in his forearm (some caused by floating bone chips), weakness, and lack of movement in his elbow, McCullers endured an “aggressively slow” rehabilitation last year, receiving platelet therapy and more to avoid the dreaded knife that could spell the end of a season. Over months, he fought the persistent physical issues and doubts.
Just do it
After a game in June, he went home and told his wife Kara that he was sure he’d need surgery. Realizing he’d be operated on regardless of resting the arm or playing, he chose the latter. “I told her, ‘I’m just gonna stop worrying about it hurting. I’m gonna start throwing.”
Resigned to facing another long surgery, McCullers was taken aback when he met with noted surgeon Keith Meister, who also operated on Verlander: “He said it was time to either have surgery or continue the rehab — and stop worrying about everything.”
Meister’s advice played perfectly to McCullers’ never-quit, mind-over-matter, do-the-thing mentality. “It's just like, just do it,” McCullers explains. “My body has to get on board. My mind’s made up. I’m doing it, and my body has to get on board.”
Get on board, it did. By summer, “things just kind of started getting better and better and better,” he recalls. “And gradually, it got to the point where by the end of June and early July … I was like, ‘man, I think we’re gonna make it. There was a drastic change in my mindset and in the way my body was responding.”
Beware of hungry dogs
McCullers has always been an unflinching spokesperson for the Astros, willing to take on anyone in defense of his team. He just might have the best gauge on the clubhouse of any player on the team. To that end, he sees a common thread among his teammates who hail from wildly varying backgrounds.
McCullers and Justin Verlander make a dynamic duo.Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
“It's a great clubhouse culture,” he says, “because we’re all from such different parts of the world and we all don’t really have too much in common — other than the fact that a majority of the guys in the clubhouse just absolutely have a grit woven into like their DNA.”
“I think that when you have that type of dog in you, so to speak — a lot of people refer to it as the ‘dog’ in you — when you just have that edge, that grit, I think it’s easy to mesh and gel together. It just seems like everyone that comes here has it.”
That grit, that dog, isn’t a given in pro sports, McCullers observes. “Not everyone in the big leagues or in sports has that,” he notes. “But it doesn't matter who comes. You bring José [Altuve], you bring [Héctor] Neris to the team. Rafael Montero. Jeremy Peña. These guys just have no quit in them and swagger and just the never-give-up kind of thing.”
McCullers, a Tampa, Florida native who displays an uncanny understanding of H-Town, sees striking similarities between the Astros players and their home city. “I feel like the team embodies Houston,” he says. “Houston embodies a team in a way of ‘we’ve just got to fight so much harder for what we get.”
Though he’s only 29 years old, McCullers is a cagey throwback to the 2017 “Core” Astros squad. While he misses former players who’ve moved on since then (especially Correa) he welcomes the sheer excitement his new teammates exude on their playoff run.
“I think it’s good to have those guys who’ve never experienced it before,” he says. “I think it’s good to walk around and see how much being here means to guys. Like, seeing how much celebrating winning the ALCS meant to Neris and to some of our young guys and how cool it is. These guys have never experienced this before.”
Though conventional wisdom in sports usually tips a hat to veteran presence and playoff experience, McCullers feels that first-time zeal and passion from newcomers mixed with experienced players is highly valuable in the Astros postseason run.
“Having a mix of a lot of young guys who are super hungry and super grateful and just experiencing this for the first time, mixed with guys who have been here I think works out really well,” he notes. “I think if you have too much of one or the other, I think that it doesn't work out. You have too many guys who have been here and have done this already. It almost becomes dull and they lose their hunger, in a sense.”
“But this year, I just feel like there's a true hunger on the team for this world championship.”
LMJ is ready to pop bottles in a World Series win. Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
Like all great teams who eventually win out, the Astros are hitting at the right time, and so is McCullers. “My stuff is, right now, better than it’s ever been, which is a really good sign for us,” he says. But that doesn’t mean the Phillies, who boast pitching 1-2 punch Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, will be easy.
“I remember being really impressed with their lineup,” McCullers says. “They have two big horses, Wheeler and Nola, and that’s about as tough of a task as you’re gonna face. We need to make sure that our starters match their starters and give our bullpen a chance to come into the game with a lead. And we have to, as an offense, grind those two guys out. We can't allow those two guys to dominate the first two games. We have to find a way to at least put pressure on them, drive the pitch, count up.”
Not that Philly’s pitchers deserve all the spotlight. The Astros arguably boast the best pitching in baseball, starting with Verlander. “JV is obviously our headliner and he's gonna be the Cy Young winner,” McCullers points out. “But, any of our guys that are gonna start this series — me, Christian Javier, Fra [Framber Valdez] — we’re all liable to throw a complete game, shut out. Any guy in the bullpen — you can just close your eyes and point — you can ask that guy to come in in any situation against any hitter and get him out. And I think that when you have the depth like that and your lineup can be dangerous one through nine.”
Leveling up, every game
When McCullers name checks the impressive roster that’s no longer on the team, a timid fan might wonder how the Astros could possibly win. “We lost Gerrit [Cole], we lost Charlie Morton, we lost [George] Springer, we lost Dallas Keuchel, we lost Carlos Correa,” he notes. “If you were to list off the amount of superstar-talent guys that we’ve lost and you didn’t know anything about our team, you would say there’s no way that team’s any good.”
“But, we’ve been able to sustain success,” he adds. “A lot of that comes down to a little bit of luck, I think. I think getting the right guys, not fully knowing if they will be the right guys — and they turn out to be. I think a lot of that has to do with the clubhouse’s culture that those guys I just mentioned help build. And, I think some of it has to do with just an uncanny ability and in an Astros uniform for someone to come up big all the time.”
Baseball is literally in McCullers’ blood and DNA. It’s in his last name. Just Googling the Astros star’s name could instead first lead to his father, Lance McCullers, who played for seven years in the MLB. Notably, the two McCullers were both drafted No. 41 overall 30 years apart, and started their careers at 21 years old.
That MLB upbringing in Tampa, however, didn’t create an entitled, privileged child, but rather a gritty one. “I’m still not the man of our family: My dad’s the man of our family, always,” says McCullers. “My dad was such an interesting dynamic because he was kind of hard on me growing up. Not in a bad way, but he was a hard man, he just expected a lot of me as the oldest son, and he was trying to mold me into a man. What he gave me was a sense of no one owes you anything, and if you want something, you have to take it. Not in a bad sense, but, you have to work for it, you have to want it, and you have to go get it.”
Gritty, tough, and having worked “probably a thousand jobs in his life,” Roberto “Bob” Perdomo, McCullers’ grandfather from Cuba, also taught young Lance the lesson of giving without seeking reward. “I learned at a young age from my grandfather that you do things because you want to do them, you do things because it matters, not because you were expecting something in return or because you want recognition.”
He wears his family pride on his sleeve — literally; his tattoos display his Celtic and Catholic family heritage and his new extended family: Houston.
Giving to Houston without seeking recognition has become McCullers’ trademark, whether it’s working with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Houston, handing out Thanksgiving turkeys, or spearheading The Lance McCullers, Jr. Foundation, the nonprofit he runs with Kara that has rescued more than 80,000 homeless dogs. Notoriously media shy about this charity — unless it brings light to an issue or organization — McCullers points to his faith as his inspiration: “I think God put something in me to make sure that I can impact people when I have the opportunity.”
McCullers has always been hands-on when it comes to helping homeless dogs. Photo courtesy of the Lance McCullers, Jr. Foundation
Bury me in The H
After the Astros Game 4 win against the Yankees, McCullers ran back a line that’s now famous: “Bury me in The H.” It’s a riveting rally from someone from Florida, but McCullers has perfectly melded with Houston and says he's been in love with the city since he moved here full time in 2016 and married his wife, Kara.
“I hope I play my whole career here,” he says.” I want to play a couple more years after this contract is over. So, I hope to be healthy and be pitching well and hope to be able to wear an Astros’ uni forever — as long as I play. But I don’t really ever see myself leaving here.”
Perhaps McCullers is simply a microcosm of the Bayou City. He recalls feeling something familiar as he became more entrenched in the diverse fabric of Houston. “I think it's just part of who I am as a person,” he says. “There are so many people who have grit here, it's just in the culture. They came here to make something of themselves. And I was young and was trying to make something of myself, so I resonated with those two things. People work so hard here for what they get, they give back and they’re kind people. And I think that was right up my alley — that’s why I love it here so much.”
For LMJ, for the ‘Stros, for the H
Game 1 against Philadelphia is just hours away and now, it’s time for McCullers to get back to work. Precious tickets for excited family members traveling to the games have to be secured. His longtime masseuse — a crucial necessity for pro athletes who subject their bodies to often punishing wear and tear — is waiting inside, ready to prep him for one of the biggest moments in his career.
Sitting in his serene, scenic backyard and enjoying the brisk October afternoon in the city he loves, McCullers, who spends much of his time focusing on the successes of everyone around him, finally allows himself a moment to reflect on potentially celebrating his own big victory. Having just turned 29 in early October, it would make quite the birthday gift.
McCullers with the greatest accomplishments in his life: Kara and Ava.Photo courtesy of Houston Astros/Lance McCullers, Jr.
But, just as the young star — who forever yearns to prove himself and “earn it” — envisions earning a 2022 World Series championship for himself, his thoughts immediately turn to everyone around him. He thinks of his clubhouse brothers who proudly wear the orange and blue jerseys and go to battle every day next to him — overcoming injuries, major management and personnel changes, and a legion of hating naysayers.
And he thinks of the millions of supporters who stand in line for hours to buy those orange and blue jerseys, just so they can represent their beloved Astros across the city, state, country, and even world.
“I have a lot of great accomplishments in my life — my wife, my daughter,” he says, grinning at the mention of his beloved girls. “But, if we win this World Series, I think — because of the road and the path I’ve had to take, and our team has had to take, and the city of Houston and our fan base has had to take with us — I think it'll probably be one of the most special moments of my life.”