McCullers Jr. K’s six in return

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In his first pitching action since the 2018 ALCS, Lance McCullers Jr. took the mound for the Houston Astros and delivered six innings’ worth of work where he struck out six Seattle Mariners and allowed five hits, three walks and two earned runs to help Houston earn a 7-2 win.

The Astros’ bats were sparked by a four-run fourth inning that started with a Yuli Gurriel home run that extended the team’s streak to 27 games with a round-tripper, matching the 2002 Texas Rangers.

McCullers acknowledged some pregame emotions following the long road back from Tommy John surgery and although he found himself with the bases loaded in the very first inning, he induced a double play to escape the inning unscathed.

After navigating through some early stress and adjusting his catcher’s alignment on his curveball, he found his groove and allowed only four base runners in as many innings and said he felt good despite his pitch count climbing.

Manager Dusty Baker said he was pleased with the starting pitcher’s performance and also cited the pregame jitters to the early trouble McCullers found himself in but commended him for battling back.

“He found the strike zone and minimized his pitches,” Baker said. “He threw a very good game outside of that first inning when he got in trouble. He made a few really good pitches in his first outing which shows (the work he’s put in).”

McCullers attributed Saturday’s success to his most recent summer camp start against the Kansas City Royals where even after five full innings and about 75 pitches, he was begging pitching coach Brent Strom to head back out even if only to face a batter or two. He understood when he was denied his request but said it helped him feel confident building his pitch count up to 92 in his first start.

“Definitely a little haywire to start but I settled in nicely and made pitches when I needed to,” McCullers said in conclusion of his postgame press conference. “I think I showed flashes of what I’ve been working with and what I hope to accomplish this year.”

The Astros and Mariners will square off two more times at Minute Maid Park in this season-opening series. Sunday’s probable pitchers are Zack Greinke for Houston and Yusei Kikuchi for Seattle with a 1:10 p.m. start time.

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