Lance McCullers struck out Paul Goldschmidt on curveball, then looked toward the Houston dugout.
That was enough on this day.
After being out of the game for more than a year, 16 pitches were plenty Sunday.
Sidelined since having Tommy John surgery in November 2018, McCullers started in a spring training game against St. Louis and faced three batters. He retired leadoff man Kolten Wong on a soft comebacker, gave up a double to Paul DeJong and fanned Goldschmidt with an 84 mph curve.
“Out of the 16 pitches I threw, really only maybe one or two that I didn’t execute the way I was hoping to pre-pitch,” McCullers said. “Really happy with just the way I felt overall and just being out there with the guys.”
McCullers’ fastball reached 94 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. His signature pitch is the curve.
“It’s been the easiest to get the feel back for,” he said. “I’m still working on my four-seam, trying to get the four-seam back. I was happy with the way I was moving it around today in the zone.”
McCullers’ healthy return to the starting rotation is a priority for the Astros, so they’re being cautious.
Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke provide a formidable duo at the top of the rotation. With the departure of free agents Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees) and Wade Miley (Cincinnati), McCullers figures to fill the third spot in the rotation.
Several candidates, none of whom have started more than eight major league games in a season, are competing for the final two spots.
A 26-year-old righty, McCullers has started 22 games three times during his four MLB seasons, but never more than that. He posted a 7-4 record with a 4.25 ERA during Houston’s 2017 championship season, a title tainted by the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.
McCullers’ previous outing against big league hitters was in relief on Oct. 17, 2018, in the AL Championship Series against Boston.
“He was smooth with his delivery,” manager Dusty Baker said following Houston’s 5-4 victory. “He wasn’t overthrowing, which I thought he might do from not being out there.”
Elsewhere around the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues:
RANGERS 8, DODGERS 6
Texas newcomer Corey Kluber faced hitters for the first time since a line drive broke his pitching arm last season with Cleveland, working three innings and allowing two runs on two hits and two walks and striking our four.
Joey Gallo hit his first homer of the spring for the Rangers and Isiah Kiner-Falefa hit his second.
Enrique Hernandez homered for the third time this spring and Edwin Rios added a two-run shot for Los Angeles.
METS (SS) 3, NATIONALS 1
Two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom was sharp in his spring training debut, giving up a hit and striking out two over three innings. He retired the side on seven pitches in his first inning and his fastball touched 98 mph. Edwin Diaz worked a clean inning of relief and Justin Wilson struck out the side in his inning of work. Jeff McNeil had two singles, Robinson Cano doubled and drove in a pair and Michael Conforto homered.
Anibal Sanchez walked two and allowed four hits while striking out three over three innings in the start for Washington.
MARLINS 7, METS (SS) 1
Miami starter Jose Urena struck out three in three shutout innings, his second straight scoreless outing. Jonathan Villar and Magneuris Sierra homered.
Michael Wacha gave up two hits and walked one over three scoreless innings for the Mets. Eduardo Nunez singled twice.
RED SOX 4, BRAVES 2
Nathan Eovaldi struck out four over three scoreless innings in the start for Boston. Tanner Houck worked three innings of relief, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out three. Rafael Devers hit a two-run homer.
Atlanta starter Mike Foltynewicz was roughed up for three runs on four hits and two walk in 1 1/3 innings. Kyle Wright struck out five over three scoreless innings.
TIGERS 10, YANKEES 4
Spencer Turnbull allowed just one hit over three scoreless innings, striking out three. Sandy Baez struck out the side in his inning of relief while walking one and giving up a base hit. Ryan Kreidler, taken in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, hit a grand slam.
David Hale, who was designated for assignment in October but opted to return to the Yankees, got the start and worked 1 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on two hits and a walk while striking out one.
ORIOLES 3, PHILLIES 2
Baltimore starter John Means pitched three hitless inning and struck out two. Rio Ruiz homered, doubled and singled and Dilson Herrera had two hits, raising his spring batting average to .353.
Ranger Suarez, who appeared in just under 50 innings and struck out 42 batters as a reliever last year, continues to work as a starter, working three innings, striking out three and allowing three hits for Philadelphia. Josh Harrison hit a solo home run.
PIRATES 13, BLUE JAYS 9
Gregory Polanco homered and Adam Frazier, who played through a pair of undisclosed injuries in the early part of 2019, is healthy, singling and doubling. Joe Musgrove worked three innings in the start, giving up two runs on two hits, walking two and striking out two.
Chase Anderson couldn’t make it out of the first inning, walking three and surrendering four runs on three hits. Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Joe Panik homered.
RAYS 8, TWINS 2
Top pitching prospect Joe Ryan made his first spring training start, working two innings, allowing three hits and striking out two for Tampa Bay.
Minnesota starter Kenta Maeda worked 2 2/3 innings, striking out three and giving up two hits and two walks. Jhoulys Chacin got in three innings of relief, striking out four while allowing four runs on three hits.
CUBS 7, MARINERS 3
Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. each hit their second home run of the string for Chicago. Jon Lester worked three scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out four.
Kendall Graveman, who spent 2019 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery with the Cubs, had a strong outing against his former club, allowing a hit and a walk over two innings, striking out three. Mallex Smith singled twice for Seattle.
INDIANS (SS) 10, DIAMONDBACKS 6
Shane Bieber worked 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, issuing a walk and striking out two for Cleveland. Brayan Rocchio, a 19-year-old shortstop prospect, hit a three-run homer, singled twice and scored three runs. Jose Ramirez and George Valera also homered.
Zac Gallen struck out four over 2 1/3 innings, allowing three earned runs on one hit and a walk. Trayce Thompson hit a solo home run and Renae Martinez had a grand slam.
ATHLETICS (SS) 10, ROYALS 6
Robbie Grossman singled twice and Seth Brown homered for Oakland.
Danny Duffy scattered three hits over two innings, striking out three for the Royals. Whit Merrifield hit a solo home run. Ryan O’Hearn and Bubba Starling both doubled.
BREWERS 5, REDS 4
Milwaukee starter Eric Lauer struck out five over 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Logan Morrison hit his second home run of the spring.
Wade Miley gave up three runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings for Cincinnati.
WHITE SOX 8, ANGELS (SS) 7
Anthony Rendon hit his first home run for Los Angeles. Patrick Sandoval worked two perfect innings in the start.
Chicago starter Ross Detwiler was tagged for six runs and seven hits in 2 1/3 innings.
PADRES 7, GIANTS 5
Jurickson Profar homered and doubled for San Diego and Wil Myers also connected.
Kevin Gausman had his second straight strong start for San Francisco, striking out two and retiring six batters in order. He has yet to allow a hit in four innings. Buster Posey homered.
ATHLETICS (SS) 8, INDIANS (SS) 5
Matt Chapman and Matt Olson both doubled for the A’s and Tony Kemp singled, doubled and scored two runs. Jesus Luzardo gave up just one hit over three innings and struck out three. Burch Smith struck out three over two perfect innings.
Cleveland starter Adam Plutko allowed three runs on three hits an a walk over two innings, striking out two.
ROCKIES 6, ANGELS (SS) 3
Ian Desmond homered and Trevor Story doubled twice for Colorado. German Marquez struck out three and allowed one hit in three innings.
Jose Suarez allowed a walk over three scoreless innings in the start for the Angels.
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