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Saturday November 25th, 2017 4:37AM

McCullers steps into spotlight as Astros' Game 7 starter

By The Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lance McCullers Jr. headed into Game 6 of the World Series not knowing whether he would be attempting to close out a championship on Tuesday night or starting Game 7 on Wednesday.

Several hours later, McCullers learned he will be on the mound for the biggest game in Astros history.

The right-hander with one victory since June will start the World Series decider, manager A.J. Hinch announced after Los Angeles forced the seventh game with a cool 3-1 victory in Game 6.

"I knew (starting Game 7) was a possibility coming into the series," McCullers said. "A.J. scheduled me for (Game 3) coming in for a reason. I think they have a lot of confidence in me. This series was destined to go seven pretty much the whole time. I think we have two great teams here. I just have to stick with my game plan and execute a little bit better than last time in certain spots, and just be a competitor out there."

McCullers won't be alone in Game 7: The entire Houston pitching staff will be available behind him, including Dallas Keuchel and possibly even Game 6 starter Justin Verlander.

"I think all of our guys are going to have the adrenaline on their side," Hinch said. "They're all going to be ready to pitch. How we use them, how much we use them — we'll get to the field. They'll do their throwing program. If it's one pitch or a hundred pitches, I think we're going to have to have all hands on deck."

But McCullers seems suited to handle the spotlight that has been thrust upon him by the Dodgers, who will counter with star Yu Darvish. McCullers has already been a resilient contributor to the Astros' remarkable season, and they need him one more time.

"I think the guys know in the clubhouse that I go out there and I'm not going to hold anything back," McCullers said. "I think they understand that I'm willing to give everything I have for the guys behind me."

While Keuchel and Verlander have formed a dynamic one-two punch at the top of Houston's rotation, McCullers has been a steady young contributor as the No. 3 starter. After an All-Star first half of the regular season and a winless second half, the 24-year-old with the nasty curve has slotted comfortably into the Astros' playoff plans.

After Game 6, McCullers spent about 10 minutes long-tossing in the right field corner at Dodger Stadium, keeping his arm loose for the big finale.

"I was hot and ready to go (in Game 6), if the situation came up where they needed me," McCullers said.

And if the Astros manage to claim the first championship in their 56-year history at Dodger Stadium, McCullers has already played a role.

McCullers won Game 3 of the World Series, pitching four-hit ball into the sixth inning of Houston's 5-3 victory. He showed tenacity in the third inning of that game when he walked the bases loaded, but yielded just one run after getting a double-play groundout by Corey Seager and another groundout by Justin Turner.

"I learned I wasn't very sharp," McCullers said of Game 3. "I knew that early, though. So I knew it was going to be a grind for me pretty much the whole outing, which it was. This is a very good hitting team. They're patient, but yet they'll make you pay for mistakes."

Six days before that, McCullers pitched four stellar innings of relief to earn the save in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, holding the Yankees scoreless while combining with starter Charlie Morton on a three-hitter.

McCullers ended that game with 24 consecutive curveballs, flummoxing the Yankees' final six batters exclusively with the nasty breaking ball that is his best pitch and one of the majors' most dangerous curves.

McCullers also pitched six innings of two-hit ball against the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS. He has a 2.95 ERA in four postseason appearances, combining with Morton to add depth behind the Astros' top two starters.

McCullers showed even more resilience during an up-and-down regular season. He made his first AL All-Star team after going 7-2 with 106 strikeouts in the first half — but he didn't win again after June 24, pitching poorly in July and sitting out much of August and September with injuries before returning for the final week.

His victory over the Dodgers in Game 3 was his first win in his last 12 appearances.

While McCullers goes for his second World Series victory, Darvish will be seeking redemption for a rough Game 3 start.

The Dodgers' prized late-season acquisition couldn't get through the second inning for the first time in his big-league career, giving up six hits and four runs while getting only five outs. Darvish's famed slider wasn't working, and he didn't come through at the most important point for his new team.

Darvish hasn't pitched at Dodger Stadium since Sept. 25.

"If it was the regular season, I probably would have kept going" in Game 3, Darvish said through a translator Tuesday. "I wouldn't say it was the worst outing I ever had. I can't pay that much attention to what happened last time. Just focus on (Wednesday's) outing and have a good game."

___

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