Astros’ McCullers set to return after almost 2 years away

MLB

For every moment that felt unusual or unprecedented on Friday at Minute Maid Park, the thing that proved most familiar was the action between the lines, the long-awaited return of baseball.

With the coronavirus pandemic delaying the start of the season until late July, the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners opened a four-game weekend series and 60-game regular season in an empty stadium with artificial crowd noise utilized to offset the unnerving silence. But once the Astros got going and rolled to an 8-2 victory, everything that was missing became moot.

“At least we have a game,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

The Astros will seek to earn at least a series split behind right-hander Lance McCullers (10-6, 3.86 ERA in 2018) on Saturday. McCullers missed the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the previous offseason. He recorded career highs in victories, innings (128 1/3) and strikeouts (142) prior to making his final appearance in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.

The start against the Mariners will be the first for McCullers since Aug. 4, 2018.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a start in the big leagues, but I’ve been very happy with the way summer camp has gone,” McCullers said. “I was really happy to get that game in Kansas City (Monday) night. It gave me a lot of confidence moving forward into the regular season.

“It’s just another game. I’ve got to go out there and do the best I can for the guys and stay in my process, stay within myself and throw the ball the best I can.”

Right-hander Taijuan Walker (9-9, 3.49 ERA in 2017) will on Saturday make his first start for Seattle since Sept. 30, 2016. He was part of a trade the following offseason and landed in Arizona, where he logged 28 starts the subsequent campaign and three more in April 2018 before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Walker made just one additional appearance for the Diamondbacks, working one scoreless inning in the season finale of 2019. He signed as a free agent with the Mariners on Feb. 12.

In what will be his first start since April 14, 2018, Walker will likely require better defense than the Mariners displayed in the series opener. Although Seattle was officially charged with only one error, several other misplays proved costly against the opportunistic Astros.

“We gave them a few too many outs,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Mariners left-handed starter Marco Gonzales threw 73 pitches over 4 1/3 innings, largely adhering to a pitch count set for the entire Seattle rotation. With Walker and right-hander Kendall Graveman, the scheduled starter for the series finale on Monday, returning from prolonged injury absences, Seattle opted to open this season with a six-man rotation to alleviate strain.

“All of our guys will be on a limited pitch count early on,” Servais said.

Mariners rookie center fielder Kyle Lewis won’t be restrained in any manner to start this season, not after clubbing six homers following his mid-September debut last year. Lewis homered off Astros right-hander Justin Verlander leading off the second inning Friday to set a tone for what could be a breakout campaign, maintaining the momentum he set in summer camp.

“Kyle is seeing the ball really well,” Servais said. “I think he’s going to have a big year for us. He’s got a lot of ability and has a great head on his shoulders.”

–Field Level Media

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