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Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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Tampa's Lance McCullers shows his killer instinct in pitching Astros to World Series

HOUSTON — It felt like the beginning on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, the arrival of a new force on the World Series stage. The Astros are back, for the first time in a dozen years, and they want to stay a while.

"We took a lot of grief early," said owner Jim Crane, who bought baseball's worst team in 2011 and kept it that way for a while. "But now the team is built to last, and hopefully we'll have another whole bunch of chances to do this again."

They hope, of course, but the Astros do not know. Nobody does. Just when things are starting, they can also be ending.

Lance McCullers usually starts. In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, he followed Charlie Morton with four overpowering innings at the end. He allowed a leadoff single to his first batter and no other hits. He walked one with six strikeouts, all on swinging third-strike curveballs.

McCullers spun curve after curve — 24 in a row to end the game — and the Yankees never solved him.

"He's got as good a curveball as we've seen in the game this year," said Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, whose curveball helped make him the majors' career strikeout leader. "He has a lot of confidence in it, and it's special to watch."

McCullers is 24, a first-time All-Star this season, and a power pitcher who has averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his three-year career. He has not won a Cy Young Award, like Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, the aces who front the Houston rotation. But he looks as if he may, someday.

Yet, so did his close friend and offseason training partner Jose Fernandez, the former Alonso High standout who was killed in a boating accident last year in Miami, where he had played for the Marlins. McCullers' father, Lance McCullers Sr., did not contend for awards, but the former Tampa Catholic High standout seemed to be headed for a long career as a durable reliever when his arm betrayed him, without warning, in 1990.

"It happened one night in Detroit," McCullers Sr. said on the field after Game 7. "I threw against the Royals and threw great for four innings or so. It was right at the All-Star break. I went home, came back and threw one game, and I had a twinge in my arm. Ended up having a blood clot. I did come back, but I was never the same."

A 90 percent blockage in his axillary artery in his shoulder essentially ended his career. McCullers Sr. was 26 and had pitched 301 games for San Diego, the Yankees and Detroit. He would pitch just five more, all before his first son was born.

He was out of the game by 1996, when the Yankees opened their spring training ballpark, Legends Field (now Steinbrenner Field), near the family's home in Tampa. He took a hard-hat tour during construction and once took his son to meet the players in the clubhouse. The family still has tickets, eight rows behind the Yankees' on-deck circle.

"I grew up watching those guys; I love those guys," said McCullers Jr., who starred at Jesuit High on North Himes Avenue, the same street as the Yankees' minor-league complex. "But (Saturday night), I had to do what I had to do."

• • •

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said he did not know McCullers would be so dominant Saturday, when he was pitching on three days' rest. But he knew he would thrive in the setting. McCullers rises to the moment, Hinch said, with a ravenous killer instinct.

That assessment got back to McCullers later, in the soggy, smoky home clubhouse. He was proud to explain why.

"It comes from how I grew up, man," he said. "My dad taught me to be a bulldog. This game was, in a way, kind of stolen from him. He got hurt a lot toward the end of his career, and he had a lot left to give.

"When I was growing up, he gave that love that he had for this game to me and my brothers, and he said, 'When you're out there on that field, you show what you're made of. You show them, "Hey, this is me, this is what I've got" — and be resilient and just love this game.'

"I love this game. I absolutely love this game. And that's why I think that kind of attitude comes out."

• • •

Fernandez loved it, too. The sobering details of his final moments — a toxicology report showed he had been drunk, with cocaine in his system; and two others died in the crash — have not changed that reality.

McCullers Sr. said his son had honored Fernandez in subtle, unspoken ways, in his movements on the field and his daily routine. As he pitched the biggest game of his young life Saturday, McCullers Jr. thought of Fernandez, distinctly, at least twice.

Once was before the final out, when Greg Bird flied to center. The other was after a leadoff walk in the eighth to Todd Frazier. He was the second, and last, baserunner McCullers allowed.

"I said, 'Hey, show what you got, because Jose would,' " McCullers said. "Dead serious. Stepped off the mound, looked down. You know, people you loved from your past, they're never off your mind. They're always there, in the back of it.

"This season wasn't like, 'Oh, I want to pitch well for Jose.' It was more like, 'I want to celebrate the way he loved the game, the way he played the game.' I still love him, and I'm very sure he was watching."

• • •

This was McCullers' moment, the kind his father and Fernandez never got. McCullers Sr. said he hoped his son could play for 10 or 15 years, but he knows that might not happen. Every day is precious. That was the spirit behind the most important message he said he gave to his son.

"Never take for granted that you made it," McCullers Sr. said, repeating his advice. "You've got to keep working hard, because you never know how long you're gonna be able to play."

His son understood. If this was the best it ever gets for Lance McCullers Jr., it was quite a night.

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