TAMPA — Kara McCullers was talking about the honeymoon. The wedding was in December at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa. Then off to Italy for two glorious weeks: Rome, Amalfi, Florence, Venice. It was wonderful. Nothing like young love. Then, back at the hotel ...
“He’d have me sit on his shoulders while he did his squats,” Kara said, laughing. “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.”
“Even in Italy, I brought my medicine balls and my (stretch) bands,” Lance McCullers Jr. said. “I found a gym in every city and I ran to it. It’s 35 degrees out and I’m running down the streets with shorts on. But you have one shot. It’s a small window. We have only so many years available. You have one shot.”
McCullers, 22, the former Jesuit High standout, isn’t taking chances.
The right-handed pitcher broke in to the major leagues last season and laid serious tracks for the Houston Astros: a 6-7 record, but a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts and 129 strikeouts in 1252⁄3 innings. He helped the precocious Astros to the playoffs, where they beat the Yankees in a wild-card game and gave the eventual world champion Royals all they could handle in the AL Division Series.
In fact, McCullers was beating Kansas City in Game 4 in Houston, just two runs on two hits, seven strikeouts, before leaving in the seventh inning. The Astros were six outs from the ALCS. But the Royals rallied from 6-2 down to force Game 5 in Kansas City, where they eliminated Houston.
“Game 4 was really the series, because it took the wind out of us,” McCullers said. “After, I just checked out. I didn’t watch any of the World Series games. Because that could have been us. That should have been us.”
So he stood near a baseball field, holding an ax.
Relax. The ax, and swinging it, is part of McCullers’ relentless offseason program, which began Dec. 1. Six days a week, he goes to Rome and Sligh Park to work under the gaze and rising cigar smoke of Orlando Chinea, who has been McCullers’ private pitching coach since McCullers was 16.
Last week, early morning. It was 40 degrees as McCullers and his workout partners, other Chinea clients, gathered at the field. There was Alberto Rodriguez, a right-handed pitcher in the Royals organization; Luis Guzman, a lefty in the Rockies system; and Wes Torrez, the son of former big-league pitcher Mike Torrez. And Lance.
They throw bullpen twice a week. Most days they do long-toss drills, various distances, using balls of various weights. When they began, the ball weighed 2 pounds. A major-league baseball weighs around 5 ounces.
“He’s perfect right now,” Chinea said of McCullers. “His motion is perfect. His power comes from his leg and his heart.”
It’s the power that produces 95-mph fastballs (McCullers topped out at 99 last season) and curveballs that average 85 mph, serious stuff, strikeout pitches. McCullers swings the ax three times a week, about 200 swings per session, attacking logs lying beyond one of the ballfield fences.
Chinea, 59, fled Cuba by speedboat in 2003. One of his defecting shipmates: Royals DH Kendrys Morales. Chinea’s former pupils include Rolando Arrojo, Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez. He also coached Marlins star Jose Fernandez, who trained in offseasons with McCullers when Fernandez starred for Alonso High. Chinea’s eccentric workouts (he’s had his students take turns pushing his Jeep around the parking lot) earned him a nickname.
“Mr. Miyagi,” McCullers said.
Ax on, ax off.
“I do it on my left side,” McCullers said as he hacked at a log. “It really strengthens my core. It gives me good grip strength, good forearm strength.”
His workout with Chinea concluded, but his day was only half done. McCullers stopped by a coffee shop not far from the Hyde Park townhouse he and Kara share with Minka, their beloved Siberian Husky. Kara is finishing up her master’s degree in speech pathology at USF.
After coffee, McCullers drove to Explosive Performance, a downtown Tampa gym owned by his fitness trainer, Nicole Gabriel, all 98 pounds of her. Gabriel, 29, a former college soccer player, has many professional baseball clients, including Hunter Pence and Dominic Brown. And Lance.
Six days a week, Gabriel devises sinister workouts for McCullers. He devours them. Barbells, sled pull, sled push, lateral lunges, squats, kneels, shoulder strength, power drills, balance drills, leg drills. McCullers is just over 6 feet tall, about 200 pounds. His legs are his engines.
“Every day is leg day,” Gabriel said. “His legs and glutes are insane. ... He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met. His warm-up is most people’s workout.”
McCullers doesn’t come to the gym thinking about what could have been in 2015, but there are times, when he’s dragging, that last season crosses his mind.
“I’ll remember the feeling after it was over, seeing other grown men cry after we lost. I didn’t cry, but I was down. I remember.”
His goals for 2016?
“Last year I had no goals, other than making it to the big leagues. I guess if I had to put goals on it, I’d like to make an All-Star team. I want to be in the conversation as a Cy Young guy. I think I have the ability. I think I put in the work.”
He thinks the Astros can win the World Series. He knows the Royals might be in the way.
Somebody is always in the way. That’s McCullers’ theory of pitching, really.
“For me, it’s always been, ‘I want to prove to you that I’m better.’ That’s what it is. Essentially, you’re trying to take my food from me. You’re trying to take my job, embarrass me. I’m trying to embarrass them. It’s a battle between people, the most intense in sport, because it’s one on one. You have the team behind you, sure, but when I have that ball and the hitter’s in that box, it’s 1 v. 1. I love it. It’s two lions going for one piece of meat.”
Off the mound, he’s McCullers the tender-hearted. He’s Lance, who lives by a Bible verse, Joshua 1:9, part of which reads, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” He’s Lance, always sending Kara flowers. It’s Lance and Kara, wanting to find homes for animals.
In Houston, McCullers hooked up with Houston Pets Alive, which rescues animals from euthanasia. He has started his own charity: K’s-For-K-9s. “I’m going to set up a GoFundMe page, a pledge page,” he said. “Like, every time I strike out someone, you give 50 cents, something like that.”
Lance and Kara dream of building animal sanctuaries in Houston and Tampa.
“I think the biggest gratification, over making the big leagues, over pitching in the playoffs, was I put a dog on my Instagram page the other day that was going to be euthanized,” Lance said. “And in two days, four people filled out adoption papers. That dog got saved. What’s better than that?”
Well, there was his recent visit to the Shriners Hospital in Houston, cheering up a badly burned boy.
“The nurse said it was the first time he’d smiled in two weeks,” McCullers said. “That’s better than anything I do on a baseball field.”
Then he went and swung the ax.
You have one shot.