Lance McCullers took a perfect game into the sixth inning and a pair of big extra base hits in the late innings powered the Houston Astros to a 3-1 win over the Cleveland Indians on Sunday night.
While the Indians avoided some of the more productive members of the dominant Astros starting rotation, McCullers reminded the Tribe that he is just as valuable a part of that pitching mix as the rest. Making his second career start against Cleveland, he was unhittable for much of the night and was locked in an entertaining pitchers’ duel with the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, one decided late on some big extra base hits for the ‘stros.
McCullers made things look easy through the first five frames, facing the minimum. His first time through the order, he accumulated six strikeouts, including four straight of the three through six hitters. Carrasco, however, did not have such a peaceful start.
Carrasco gave up a one-out single to Alex Bregman in the first inning, but a new arrival came to the Tribe right-hander’s aid. Jose Altuve singled to right and Bregman charged for third, but new right fielder Melky Cabrera fired a strike to Jose Ramirez at third base on his first defensive chance of the season to gun down Bregman. Altuve went to second on the throw and stole third, but Carlos Correa struck out swinging.
Six men would step to the plate in the second, but Carrasco kept Houston off the board. Yuli Gurriel doubled with one down and Marwin Gonzalez reached safely on an error by Yonder Alonso at first. Brian McCann struck out swinging, but nine-hitter Tony Kemp worked a walk to load the bases for the top of the order. Carrasco got a big grounder from George Springer to Alonso, who fielded this one and tagged the bag to strand three Astros.
Carrasco retired eight straight hitters in his second trip through the lineup before a one-out single by Kemp in the bottom of the fifth. Back-to-back fly outs by Springer and Bregman stranded another man.
The Indians broke up the perfect game and no-hitter in the sixth after McCullers retired 15 in a row. It was a Jason Kipnis single to right-center that ended any suspense, but any chance of that runner breaking the scoreless tie was quickly erased as Kipnis was forced out at second on a fielder’s choice pop up to Altuve. With Gomes now at first, Greg Allen struck out swinging and Francisco Lindor grounded out to first.
The Indians got two runners on base for the first time in the seventh with a two-out rally attempt. Edwin Encarnacion and Alonso each walked, but Cabrera could not deliver with a liner to right to leave a pair.
The missed opportunity would loom large in the bottom of the frame as the Astros finally made Carrasco pay. Gurriel singled to lead things off and moved to second on a rare sacrifice by Houston. McCann sent a 1-0 offering deep to right, clearing the fence with a two-run shot to give the Astros the first lead of the game. Carrasco would get out of the inning with two outs in the air, but the damage was done.
Will Harris and Chris Devenski took care of the eighth in relief of McCullers, with Harris allowing a two-out single to Allen before Devenski struck out Lindor. Houston tacked on another run in the eighth after back-to-back singles from Bregman and Altuve to start the inning against Carrasco. A double play grounder by Correa nearly had the Indians out of the jam, but with a runner on third, reliever Tyler Olson gave up a ground-rule double to center to score Bregman with an insurance run. Cody Allen relieved Olson and got Gurriel to pop out.
Down to their final three outs, the Indians got a run that would not affect the outcome. Michael Brantley doubled to left and moved to third on a liner by Ramirez to center off of Devenski. AJ Hinch returned to the mound for his closer Ken Giles, who got Encarnacion to ground out to third, scoring Brantley to make it a 3-1 game before Alonso grounded out to end it.
With the loss, the Indians (22-23) drop back below the .500 mark and fall to 9-14 away from home. The Astros (30-18) are now the third team to reach the 30-win plateau, joining the American League’s Boston Red Sox (32) and New York Yankees (30).
MCCULLERS FLIRTS WITH PERFECTION
McCullers had faced the Indians just once previously, taking a loss last season after allowing five runs on seven hits in five innings of work. It would be a much different story for the right-hander on Sunday, as he held the Indians without a mark on the scoreboard through his first five perfect innings.
He would work seven full innings while earning his sixth win of the season, allowing just the one single to Kipnis in the sixth while walking two and striking out eight.
CARRASCO SAVES BULLPEN
Carrasco pitched later into the ball game than probably preferable, but he had overcome a tough first couple of innings to find a groove on the mound. He worked two outs into the eighth, allowing three runs on eight hits with a walk and six strikeouts. The McCann blast in the seventh would prove to be the deciding blow, while he was charged with an additional run in the eighth after Olson allowed his inherited runner to come in to score.
“I thought he was terrific. My goodness,” said Indians manager Terry Francona. “He left a changeup up and McCann took a really good swing. He pitched his way out of a couple of jams. When we’re not scoring, it makes things tougher.”
Both clubs made roster moves prior to the finale on Sunday.
The Indians purchased the contract of Melky Cabrera from Triple-A Columbus. A pair of relievers saw their statuses with the organization change, as right-hander Evan Marshall was optioned to Columbus, while Columbus pitcher Alexi Ogando was designated for assignment to clear space on the 40-man roster.
“I don’t think he throws with as much velocity as he used to, but he’s very accurate,” said Francona of Cabrera’s first inning outfield assist. “That’s good enough. That was a really nice play.
“He looks like Melky, which I think is a good thing.”
The final question of this weekend’s Tribe Trivia:
This current coach on AJ Hinch’s staff spent five seasons in the Majors, including one year with the Indians in 1973. He is probably better known as being the second person to undergo Tommy John surgery, having the procedure in 1978.
Who am I? – Astros pitching coach Brent Strom
RETURN TO WRIGLEY
The Indians will take Monday off after their series defeat to the Astros. They will return to action on Tuesday in a two-game series from Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where the Indians make their first appearance since the 2016 World Series. The Astros will stay home and host the San Francisco Giants in a two-game interleague series beginning Tuesday night before heading to Cleveland for a four-game series with the Indians next weekend.
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images