Lance McCullers Jr. was terrific. Yordan Alvarez delivered, and Jose Altuve scored on a nifty slide.
The Houston Astros sure love October.
McCullers pitched scoreless ball into the seventh inning, and the Astros beat Lance Lynn and the Chicago White Sox 6-1 in Game 1 of their AL Division Series on Thursday.
Michael Brantley added two hits and two RBIs as the AL West champions showed off their playoff experience in an impressive opening performance. McCullers allowed four hits in 6⅔ innings in his eighth career post-season start.
“You get the ball in Game 1 and your team is expecting this from you,” McCullers said.
While Houston is in the playoffs for the fifth straight season, winning the World Series in 2017 and making it to the AL Championship Series last year, Chicago is making a second straight playoff appearance for the first time in franchise history. It lost to Oakland in the first round in 2020.
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is Friday in Houston. The teams also met in the 2005 World Series, with the White Sox sweeping the Astros for the title.
It was Houston’s eighth straight win in the opener of the division series dating to Game 1 of the 2004 NLDS against Atlanta.
“Everyone did their part, did their thing and we came out with a great win,” McCullers said.
McCullers, playing the role of staff ace after the Astros lost Gerrit Cole in free agency and Justin Verlander to injury in recent years, struck out four and walked none. He set career highs with 13 wins, a 3.16 ERA and 185 strikeouts during the regular season, but he also led the AL with 76 walks.
The 28-year-old McCullers didn’t allow a hit until Yoan Moncada singled with one out in the fourth. The right-hander left to a standing ovation after giving up consecutive singles with two outs in the seventh. He waved to the cheering fans just before entering the dugout.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “We didn’t do much with him.”
Alvarez hit an RBI double in the third and a solo homer in the fifth. Manager Dusty Baker is thrilled to have the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year back this season after he missed all but two games last year after surgery on both knees.
“You don’t know when he’s going to leave the yard and he’s going to drive in some big runs,” Baker said. “So, yeah life wasn’t too pleasant last year without Yordan.”
The 24-year-old Alvarez watched Houston’s 2020 playoff run on television.
“To be able to be back with the team and be able to help it out is really special for me,” he said through a translator.
Altuve wowed the crowd of 40,497 when he slid home and slapped the back of the plate just ahead of Yasmani Grandal’s tag in the third.
“I think the turn of the game was that slide by Altuve ... that gave us the momentum,” McCullers said.
Lynn was making his first playoff appearance since 2018 after posting a career-low 2.69 ERA this season. But the burly right-hander relies on his fastball, and the Astros are one of the majors’ best fastball-hitting teams.
Lynn was tagged for five runs and six hits in 3⅔ innings. Five of the six hits that he allowed came off his four-seam or cut fastball.
“I gave up some two-out runs on pitches that could have been better,” Lynn said. “When it’s all said and done I just wasn’t making quality pitches when I needed to. That’s pretty much it.”
Rookie Jake Meyers had two hits and drove in a run for Houston. Brantley chased Lynn with a two-run single.
Chicago got on the board on Jose Abreu’s two-out single in the eighth. But Kendall Graveman retired Grandal on a liner to centre for the final out.
Abreu was in the lineup after dealing with flu-like symptoms for the last few days. He did not travel with the team to Houston, instead arriving Wednesday night after multiple tests showed his illness wasn’t COVID-19-related. The White Sox weren’t sure if he’d be able to play before he went through pregame workouts, so they submitted two different lineups to the Astros – one with the 2020 AL MVP and one without him.
“If I told you that I was feeling 100 per cent, I would be lying to you,” he said through a translator. “But because of the commitment that I have for this team I have to give my best for this team every day [and] it was important for me to play.”
Thursday’s win gave Baker a 105-104 edge in career games managing against La Russa.
Houston left-hander Framber Valdez (11-6, 3.14 ERA) opposes Lucas Giolito (11-9, 3.53 ERA) on Friday.