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How the Astros proceed without Lance McCullers

Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. throws during the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City, Mo., Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Even though many view the Astros rotation as being without a true ace, Lance McCullers has been exactly that. He has postseason success on his resume and pitched well in the ALDS against the White Sox. He’s the guy you want on the mound in a Game 7 situation. So what does Dusty Baker do if his ace is out for the rest of the postseason?

McCullers left his last start after only four innings due to forearm discomfort, which is never a good sign. The team says he’s still being examined, but MLB Network’s Jon Heyman has reported that an MRI revealed no long-term concerns, but that he’s most likely out for the ALCS. There’s at least a chance he returns for the World Series if the Astros advance, but they might have to get there without him.

In that scenario, the Astros’ top three starting pitchers are obvious — Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy. Valdez wasn’t great in the ALDS, but he was excellent in the 2020 postseason and had a 3.14 ERA in the 2021 regular season. Urquidy has a career 2.81 postseason ERA including a five scoreless inning gem in the 2019 World Series. Garcia pitched poorly in the ALDS but had a 3.30 ERA in the regular season, so he’ll be there. But who will be the team’s fourth starter?

The Candidates

Ideally, the best option would be Zack Greinke. His regular season numbers weren’t great, as he really tailed off in the second half (a 5.34 ERA after the All-Star break), but he’s still Greinke. The 37-year-old is no stranger to the big stage (remember his start in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series?) and can be a real difference maker when he’s on. But is he stretched out enough to start after pitching in relief the past two outings? That’s a legitimate question.

Then there’s Jake Odorizzi, who was maddeningly inconsistent in pitching to a 4.21 ERA this season. But he might be better able to go deeper into a game, and there’s a decent chance he’ll give you five good innings. In his one career postseason start, he held the Yankees to two runs over five innings. The Astros would take that in a heartbeat.

You also have to consider Cristian Javier, though he would be more of a multi-inning opener as opposed to a traditional starter. He pitched 2.2 scoreless innings out of the bullpen in ALDS Game 3, so he’s someone who could be utilized to get through the opposing order one time in an ALCS Game 4. He has plenty of experience as a starter, so it’s not like it would be foreign territory for him.

There might be other options who weren’t on the ALDS roster, such as Brandon Bielak and Peter Solomon. If the Astros were in a pinch they might consider turning to them, but it’s not likely either would be asked to start a game. The team will probably carry one additional pitcher on the ALCS roster, so there might be room for one of these guys, but they’d likely be relegated to mop-up duty.

What’s the Plan?

More than likely, the Astros won’t rely on just one pitcher to get through five or six innings in Game 4, which is presumably when this spot would come up. The exception might be if they roll with Odorizzi and they get the good Odorizzi, but that’s no guarantee. They might prefer to start someone else and have Odorizzi throw 3-4 innings of relief.

But either way, the Astros will most likely rely on some combination of Odorizzi, Greinke, and Javier. My preference would be to piggyback Greinke and Odorizzi and hope you can get six innings out of that combination. If you can, that’s a job well done. That would also save Javier to pitch in other games as needed.

Can The Astros Win Without McCullers?

In a word, yes. But it won’t be easy. The offense will have to carry the team for the most part, which is certainly possible against a Boston pitching staff that, aside from Nathan Eovaldi, Tanner Houck, and Garrett Whitlock, hasn’t been that intimidating. They have some good pitchers, and Alex Cora will no doubt manage his bullpen effectively. Still, this Houston lineup should be able to score some runs.

The Red Sox lineup won’t be easy to navigate, though. They had six players hit more than 30 doubles this season and six players hit 20 or more homers, and that doesn’t include Kyle Schwarber. They absolutely decimated the Rays vaunted pitching staff in the ALDS. This could wind up being a series of high scoring games, so the Astros will simply have to keep up.

Losing McCullers hurts, but the Astros have the arms to still pull this off. Urquidy didn’t even pitch in the ALDS, and he’s arguably their best remaining starter behind Valdez. There’s still depth on this pitching staff, and that depth is enough for them to withstand Boston’s attack as long as the team plays well as a whole. It might be a little tougher without McCullers, but winning is still very much a possibility. It’s the next man up.

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