Fiery, confident, and a pivotal leader in the clubhouse, Houston Astros star pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. has fiercely battled a potentially career-ending injury (Tommy John, especially brutal for pitchers) and has since become a nightmare for opposing batters.
His performance in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and Game 7 of the 2020 AL Championship Series marked the rise of superstar — albeit an impossibly humble one.
In advance of the Astros first-round ALDS matchup with the Chicago White Sox on Thursday, October 7, McCullers — a new father and fan favorite — caught up with CultureMap to break down the upcoming ALDS duel, his remarkable return from injury, a new trick up his sleeve, and some teammates he feels are worthy of the limelight.
As usual, he brings the heat.
CultureMap: Congratulations on yet another division title. Give us a quick breakdown of the team — what’s the mindset going into the first game of the offseason?
LM: The mindset for tomorrow is the same as it’s been all year, and that’s just attack. Go out there, trust my stuff, trust Maldy [catcher Martin Maldonado] behind the dish, just be me. Part of that is going out there and not being weighed down by fear.
When you look at every aspect of the game, we do exactly what we need to do to win. We have one of the best defenses in the game, we have an amazing offense, we hit for power but we don’t rely on the long ball — which is probably one of the most important aspects of our offense. The other important aspect is that it comes from everybody.
We have a really great rotation — maybe it doesn’t have all the names, but we have guys who are stepping up as rookies, and we have a field general in Maldy, who has to be one of the most respected guys around the game.
So when you look at the game of baseball and what it takes to win, I feel like we check all the boxes.
CM: You’re facing a stout team in the White Sox. Break down the matchup for us.
LM: They have a great team — they throw the ball extremely well, they have great bats, a really, really strong bullpen. We faced them this year — we know them, they know us. At the end of the day it’s gonna come down to whoever executes better.
I can see this being a five-game series. When you’re playing great teams, sometimes the toughest hurdle is the first round.
CM: How important is home-field advantage?
LM: Playing at home is a huge boost and it’s a big reward for the fans. We have to tip our hats to the fans for the way they’ve shown up this year. As a player, you’re just happy to play at home to give your fans those experiences.
I love waking up in my home with my wife and my daughter and my dogs. You go to your coffee spot, you feel like you’re in your groove. But we’re road warriors too — we’ve won a lot of big games on the road and we’ve been in hostile environments pretty much every single time we’ve gone on the road.
CM: One of the biggest storylines of this season is Carlos Correa and his future with the team. You two are good friends and came up in the organization together. What are your thoughts on his future?
LM: I want Carlos to be here. The fans undoubtedly want him to be here. But right now we’re focusing on now and focusing on winning. I'm not looking down the road and dwelling on the possibility of us not playing together.
We’ve created so many memories and I’m just focused on creating new ones. He’s someone who’s going to be a beyond-baseball friend for me and will always have a special place in my heart.
CM: You’ve always been great about highlighting players who don’t get the limelight. Who are some unsung heroes this year who deserve some more love from fans and media?
LM: Kyle Tucker. That guy is one of the best right fielders in the game — and that’s AL and NL. You’re talking about a guy to win, in my opinion, multiple MVPs. It would be hard for me not to imagine that he’s not in the conversation for a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove — he’s done it for us all year. He hits lefties, he hits righties, hits fastballs, up, down, off-speed.
It reminds you of Altuve — there’s nothing you can attack him with to get him out consistently.
Luis Garcia I think is the AL Rookie of the Year — he’s had a fantastic year from the start. Guys who win big-time awards should be guys who were great all season. It’s not about a guy who got hot for a few months, it’s about consistency.
And it’s about a guy who’s been there every single day, hasn’t spent a day on the DL, hasn’t asked for a single day off, goes out there — doesn’t matter who it’s against — and does his thing. I think he has an interesting and bright future.
CM: Let’s get back to you: This may well be your best year ever — after what could’ve been a devastating setback and Tommy John surgery.
LM: My whole career I’ve been hurt. When I had the surgery, I told myself, teammates, and my friends that my best days as an Astros uniform were ahead of me, not behind me. I really poured my heart and soul into getting better and being a better teammate.
CM: You were a great teammate and pitcher, and now you’ve added some pieces to your arsenal.
LM: I threw the ball well last season — it was a little choppy, being a short season. But I felt like something was missing, so last season I added the cutter to lefties and the slider this year. I really worked on that with our pitching coaches, and here we are with a pretty devastating secondary pitch. It’s been huge for me.
CM: Can you describe your mindset and the confidence you have?
LM: You cannot always pitch well; you cannot always be The Man every single time. I’m not scared of failure. Failure’s a part of life; it’s a part of this game. I just want to give my best effort for my team. Now, I have confidence that comes from having performed in big moments for our team and our city.
CM: You’re unabashedly humble and team-first. But as a veteran, the younger players look to you. Do you think of yourself as a leader in the clubhouse?
LM: I’ve never really put a label on it. My whole thing — my whole career — is I just want to be a guy who my teammates can look to give them good starts, give them chances to win, to cheer on the guys, be there every day, be a good teammate.
That 2017 team, with Brian McCann, Beltran, along with guys like Keuchel and Colin McHugh and Jason Castro; they taught me how to be a pro. And part of being a pro is showing up to work. I’ve had my struggles with my health in the past because I was pitching a long time with some pre-existing injuries, trying to push through.
But this year, I just wanted to go out there and be my best self.
CM: There’s that trademark humility again.
LM: This is my seventh MLB season. I just feel like I can offer help to guys — that’s what a leader ultimately is, someone who can offer guidance and go out there and do it. I definitely embrace a ‘veteran’ guy and being there for guys who have less experience.
CM: Fans and media who are paying attention can tell: Everything seems to be clicking at the right time.
LM: We’re great. One of the greatest things about our clubhouse is everyone is focused on the now.
What I mean by that is a lot of times, you get caught up with the pressures and the expectations and things of that nature. But when you focus on right now and the task at hand, that stuff is pretty much out of your mind.
CM: It’s really hard to imagine you sounding more relaxed.
LM: We’re just out there playing ball, man. This is a kid’s game and we’re grown men and we’re lucky enough to get to play for an amazing organization that gives us a chance to be a winning club year in and year out, and play for an amazing city with amazing people, and amazing fans.
That’s our mindset: This is the best time of the year. We’re ready to play.