HOUSTON — Lance McCullers Jr. is ready to throw the Los Angeles Dodgers a curve.
He ended Game 7 of the AL Championship Series last weekend by throwing 24 consecutive curveballs to retire the New York Yankees’ final five batters in order. The 23-year-old All-Star right-hander will be back on the mound for the Houston Astros on Friday night when the World Series resumes with Game 3 at Minute Maid Park after a split in Los Angeles.
“The old saying of ‘don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,’ or something like that,” McCullers said Thursday. “I just kind of got in the groove and felt like it was working.”
Yu Darvish starts for the Dodgers, who worked out under a closed roof at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night.
McCullers’ curveball use topped the major leagues at 47.2 percent of his pitches this year, according to Fangraphs. The Dodgers’ Rich Hill was second at 39.8 percent.
“He believes in his best stuff matched up against the best stuff of the other guy, that he’s going to be better. He’s a challenge-first type guy,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “His belief in himself is second to none.”
McCullers’ father, also named Lance, pitched seven seasons in the major leagues with San Diego (1985-88), the New York Yankees (1989-90), Detroit (1990) and Texas (1992), going 28-31 in nine starts and 297 relief appearances.
Lance Jr. mostly played shortstop in his first few seasons at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, where he earned a national player of the year award in 2012. He started taking the mound more in his junior year under pitching coach Geoff Goetz, the sixth overall choice by the New York Mets in the 1997 amateur draft.
“I was messing around with the grip he used, and then I came about with the way I throw it now,” McCullers said. “The way I grew up kind of learning how to pitch with my father and my pitching coach in Florida was to throw every pitch the same as a fastball, not to manipulate your wrists or to do anything different with your hand positioning, as you would a fastball.”
Taken by Houston with the 41st selection in 2012, McCullers made it to the major leagues three years later. He was 7-4 with a 4.25 ERA this year in 22 starts, limited to six regular-season outings after the All-Star break because of back discomfort (July 31-Sept. 5) and arm fatigue (Sept. 13-23). A bad back also caused a disabled list stint in June.
His curveball use was at 36 percent in 2015 before rising to nearly 50 percent in each of the last two seasons.
“The curveball, I think it’s still the lowest-average-against pitch in the big leagues,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s certainly a place for that when you’re working front to back and also up to down.”
McCullers wasn’t thinking exclusively breaking ball when he relieved Charlie Morton with a 4-0 lead over the Yankees after five innings.
“The crowd was rocking,” he said. “I could tell they were pressing a little bit. As I was throwing curveballs and I was reading the swings, for me it was just, I’m not really going to make an adjustment until they do. It would have been the same thing if I threw a lot of fastballs or a lot of changeups.”
Darvish will be starting his third Game 3 this October after beating Arizona in the NL Division Series and the Chicago Cubs in the Championship Series. The 31-year-old right-hander started against the Astros twice this year before Texas traded him to the Dodgers on July 31, allowing three runs over five innings during a home loss on June 2 and one run in seven innings at Houston 10 days later. He is 4-1 in six starts at Minute Maid.
Last month Darvish was among the Dodgers players who wore Houston Strong T-shirts to raise money for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
“I made a donation to help, to support Houston, and I want people to get recovered and feel more energized,” he said through a translator. “And since I made that donation, maybe I can use a ball that doesn’t have much pop in it.”
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