Astros’ Lance McCullers bigger problem for White Sox than one loss

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McCullers bigger problem for Sox than one loss in ALDS originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

HOUSTON – Orbit, the Astros mascot, made it from the right field gate to centerfield and halfway back before Adam Engle reached the dugout entrance.

Orbit was lugging a giant Astros flag, but Engle was absorbing the White Sox' Game 1 loss, after making the final out of the American League Division Series opener, on a wild barehanded play by Astros second baseman Jose Altuve.

“Our club doesn’t get discouraged,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said after a 6-1 loss to the Astros. “If they beat you, tip your cap, and you come out tomorrow. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll come out ready to play."

The White Sox offense was faced with a tall task Thursday at Minute Maid Park. By the end of the fourth inning, they were staring at a five-run deficit, as White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn struggled again against the Astros. By the end of the fifth, it was six runs.

Though the White Sox made a bit of a late offensive push, successes against Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. were few and far between. The right-hander limited the White Sox to four hits in 6 2/3 shutout innings.

The problem for the White Sox is, after pitching Game 1 in the best-of-five series, the Astros ace could be available to start Game 4 on short rest, or Game 5 if the series gets that far. So, the South Siders will likely have to get past McCullers down the road if they hope to advance to the AL Championship Series.

“That’s because he’s one of the best in the league,” White Sox three-hole hitter José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo, when asked what made McCullers so tough to face. “I mean, he’s in the majors.”

McCullers said part of his game plan was to be “overwhelming in the zone.” He did that, not issuing a single walk. Of his 104 pitches Thursday, 62 were strikes.

"For the most part," McCullers said, "maybe aside from a couple change-ups and a couple heaters, even when pitches weren't in the zone, they had purpose, and they helped me out through the rest of the game."

McCullers held the White Sox hitless through the first three innings. Yoán Moncada finally broke the streak with one out in the fourth inning, hitting a line drive into shallow left field.

He made it into scoring position, advancing to second on José Abreu’s groundout to shortstop. But Grandal hit a comebacker on the ground for the third out of the inning. All three were groundouts.

Finally in the seventh inning, the White Sox started to string together hits against McCullers, with singles from José Abreu, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez. But by then, McCullers had pitched what would have been considered deep by regular-season standards. In the short-leash postseason, his start was practically Herculean.

“Sometimes you just have to go toe to toe and just see who's better on any given day,” McCullers said of attacking the zone against a balanced White Sox lineup. “It's just one of those things where they have a fantastic offense. They have a lot of power. They have a lot of guys who hit for high average. They have a lot of guys who don't swing or chase and miss.

“… You're either going to sit there all day and worry about this and that, how good they are, or you can just lay it on the line and go after them and see what happens.”

The White Sox finally scored in the eighth inning, after McCullers retreated to the dugout. With two outs, Astros reliever Kendall Graveman threw a first-pitch fastball to Tim Anderson. The White Sox leadoff hitter drove it to right field for a single. Next, Moncada drew a walk, pushing Anderson to second as Abreu stepped up to the plate.

Abreu, whose availability was questionable up until about an hour before game time because of a non-COVID-19 illness, ended the Astros’ shutout bid.

“I think in the last few innings we showed the kind of offense we have,” Abreu said, “the kind of offense we’ve been carrying throughout the whole season, and hopefully we can carry that for tomorrow.”

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