Cleveland (92.3 the Fan) – Astros starter Lance McCullers entered Wednesday as one of the game’s most up-and-coming pitchers, but he came with a bit of a tip to his pitches.
McCullers began the day throwing his knuckle-curve 55.2% of the time, and rightfully so, as the pitch sits in the mid-to-high 80s with a sharp downward break.
But the top of the Indians order was ready.
Carlos Santana jumped on the first breaking ball he saw, shooting it to left field for a leadoff single. After a four-pitch walk to Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley saw four curves, roping the last one deep to the left-center field gap for an RBI double.
Edwin Encarnacion saw three pitches, one of them curves, which he smashed the opposite way to score Lindor on a sacrifice fly. Jose Ramirez scored Brantley on a double, swatting a changeup the opposite way, but Jason Kipnis singled on the breaking ball the next at-bat.
Brantley said they knew the k-curve was coming, and just executed what they were trying to do at the plate.
“It’s an approach that you want to take,” the left fielder said. “I mean, he has a very good breaking ball, like you said. It’s a plus breaking ball, it’s one of the best breaking balls you’re going to see all year. You’re just trying to stay on it. You can roll them over with the best of them, especially when they are that good, so if you can stay on it and try to drive it the other way, you’re going to have better success.”
The thing was, while manager Terry Francona maintained his guys were not looking for the specific pitch, and looking for elevated curves, the four breaking pitches that Indians hitters took advantage of were in different spots. In the first, only Santana’s single was truly up in the zone, while Encarnacion and Kipnis were over the middle, and Brantley’s was relatively low.
“It’s getting something up that you can handle,” the skipper said. “Maybe not swinging at the really good ones. Because those are hard to hit. He got going there for a while where when he needed something, he went to it. But getting something up in the zone.”
From there, McCullers used his curveball as a secondary pitch, which eventually goaded Lonnie Chisenhall to ground into an inning-ending double play on a fastball on the hands.
By that point, the damage had been done, with the eventual winners handing their starter a 3-0 lead headed into his second inning of work.
McCullers pitched through the 5th inning, but was again undone by his best pitch in his final inning. After Santana walked to lead off the 5th, Lindor doubled down the third-base line on a curve low-and-away before Brantley drove both of them home on the same pitch.
Francona was still complimentary of McCullers’ bread and butter.
“Early, we did a real good job early,” Francona said. “A lot of times, before guys can settle in, and then he really went to that breaking ball.
“It’s a good one. It’s one of the better ones.”