How Astros prepare for ALCS vs. Red Sox if Lance McCullers can’t start

The absence of an ace has hung over the Astros all season. An emergent offered enthusiasm for the short- and long-term success of this franchise. Houston granted Lance McCullers Jr. a five-year, $ 85 million contract extension in March, considering that exact scenario. McCullers blossomed during the best season of his six-year big-league career, creating hope for the next four.

Aces are rare. McCullers’ personality and performances foreshadow that one day he will be among them. The 28-year-old isn’t afraid of the spotlight and wants baseball to save a season or win a series.

McCullers ‘significance to the Astros’ long-term future cannot be understated. It is imperative to strike a balance with this October opportunity. Still, McCullers is injured as Houston’s fifth straight American League championship series begins on Friday, and the Astros aren’t sure if he can help.

Team officials spent most of Thursday speaking short sentences and reminding reporters of Friday’s 10 a.m. deadline for the Astros to submit their roster. McCullers’ inclusion in this regard seems questionable at best.

McCullers felt tightness in his forearm during the fourth round of Tuesday’s start in Chicago. He finished the frame despite his discomfort. McCullers entered the dugout with Houston ahead by four points and a paddock resting behind him. He briefed pitching coach Brent Strom and manager Dusty Baker. They pulled him out without hesitation.

McCullers underwent an MRI when the team returned home. General manager James Click declined to disclose what the footage revealed. The Astros did not make McCuller available for interviews on Thursday’s practice day at Minute Maid Park. Baker did not give more details than Click.

“If it was the regular season, you would just shut it down for two weeks and give it no thought,” Click said. “Obviously it’s the playoffs, and he’s a different animal.”

Caution is key with McCullers. He tore his ulnar collateral ligament in 2018 and underwent Tommy John surgery in November. On Tuesday, McCullers said he didn’t believe the injury “had anything to do with my ligament.” Pushing a pitcher with a history of elbow injuries, especially one so crucial to the franchise’s future, seems reckless.

“We have a good shot right now,” Click said. “You don’t go to ALCS often. These opportunities are rare. We have to make sure we do everything we can to ensure that this team is in a position to try to win the World Series this year, but he’s going to be here for a long time, and we have to balance that.

The final will not arrive until Friday morning, when the Astros will have to publish their roster of 26 players. If the Astros include the McCullers, they are at double risk. Places on the playoff roster – especially in a seven-game streak – are too valuable to be wasted with a pitcher who might not be available.

Let’s say, however, that McCullers is trying to get over his injury. If he suffers a setback and needs a replacement on the playoff list, major league rules say he would be ineligible for the World Series if the Astros advance. If there is any hope that rest and rehabilitation can make McCullers available for a possible World Series appearance, the ideal action might be to omit it.

“It will be a team decision,” Click said. “But that’s how Lance ultimately feels.”

McCullers ‘absence would hurt the Astros’ chances of securing a pennant. Their training remains elite, but legitimate questions would surround the depth of their pitching staff. McCullers was on schedule to start Game 3 and a possible Game 7. The possibility of playing three straight games in Boston could place too great a burden on an inconsistent and unbuilt reliever pen to absorb such a heavy workload.

Houston has enough body to replace McCullers, but his quality and durability will be difficult to replicate. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in the team’s opener against Chicago in the ALDS. Neither of his other two starters – Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia – have finished more than 4 1/3 frames.

Valdez is expected to start Game 1 against the Red Sox. Garcia will get the baseball in Game 2, protecting him from throws on the road. If McCullers is unavailable, Valdez’s length in Game 1 is vital. Garcia hasn’t thrown more than 90 shots since June 30.

Because he started ALDS Game 4, McCullers would not have been available to pitch against the Red Sox until Monday. José Urquidy is the obvious option to start in his place. Urquidy was due to start Game 4 of the ALDS, but a rain gave McCullers the start at full rest.

Urquidy struck out nine Red Sox on catches over six innings in his only regular season appearance against them. He started the World Series at Nationals Park in 2019, so the Fenway Park atmosphere shouldn’t scare him. His season-long success against left-handed hitters could cripple Rafael Devers and Kyle Schwarber – two of Boston’s top hitters in the Order.

The prospects beyond Urquidy are a cause for consternation. Houston has three proven starting pitchers at its disposal, but none that inspires the same confidence as McCullers. Neither Zack Greinke nor Cristian Javier exceed fifty lengths. Despite numbers above Greinke, the Astros did not include Jake Odorizzi on their ALDS roster, demonstrating the faith they apparently have in him.

Game 4 could contain a combination of these three pitchers, assuming they aren’t needed behind Valdez, Garcia or Urquidy in the first three games. The length of the three to avoid this is important.

Boston’s roster is much more balanced than Chicago’s right-handed group – a much more ideal matchup for Greinke, who struggles to get right-handed hitters out. Normally, Devers, Schwarber and compatriot Alex Verdugo hit in the top four of the Boston batting order. Using Greinke as an opening might make sense. This would allow the longtime starter to use his normal pre-start routine instead of training a new one in the lifter pen.

Javier is more used to entering in the middle of a game or a round. He struck out six White Sox catches in excellent 2 2/3 innings in Game 3 of the ALDS. The 56 shots he threw were his biggest since June 3. Greinke hasn’t launched more than 68 since September 19. Odorizzi hasn’t appeared in a match since October 2.

“I’m perfectly capable, that’s the best way to put it,” Odorizzi said Thursday. “I don’t see any reason why I would feel any different. I feel the same as during the season, just with a little extra rest I guess we would call it.

Odorizzi compared his omission from the ALDS list to an “All-Star break”. He expressed disappointment with the decision but praised the performance of the team around him.

“I was here, I was in the canoe and I was trying to do what I could do. It was pretty much just sitting down and watching the guys play because it was about them, ”Odorizzi said. “They played fantastically. Scored a lot of runs. The pitch was good. I was just a spectator, but I did what I could.

His responsibilities may soon increase.

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