SEATTLE — With the lead in the American League West more than a dozen games, the Houston Astros had the luxury of being cautious.
So when right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., the league’s pitcher of the month for May, felt discomfort in his lower back a couple of weeks ago, the Astros didn’t hesitate to put him on the 10-day disabled list.
“If I had to miss time, for something totally unrelated to my arm, it might as well be right now,” said McCullers, who is scheduled to be activated from the disabled list Saturday to start against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. “I feel good and ready to get back out there.”
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McCullers (6-1, 2.58 ERA) was 4-0 in May with a 0.99 ERA and 37 strikeouts in six starts to earn the AL honor.
In his last start before going on the disabled June 8 at Kansas City, McCullers opened with six hitless innings. He allowed just one run and two hits in seven innings with two walks and eight strikeouts but didn’t get the decision in a 6-1 victory.
McCullers, 23, who was placed on the DL the next day, said he was shut down completely for four or five days, then started a light throwing program and working out in the weight room. He threw two bullpen sessions, the last of which — on Wednesday — was 50-60 pitches.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch didn’t commit to an innings limit for McCullers in his return.
“It depends on how good and efficient he is,” Hinch said. “He’s only been out a short period of time.
“But he’s a young arm, coming off the disabled list. We’ll monitor him. The first couple of innings will dictate.”
McCullers is 4-2 in his career against the Mariners with a 2.14 ERA. He got the win against them April 4 in Houston, allowing one run and five hits in six innings of a 2-1 victory.
On Saturday, he’ll face a Seattle offense that has been very productive recently.
In the past 26 games, in which the Mariners are 18-8, the team is batting .305 and has scored 166 runs, an average of 6.38 per game. In contrast, they hit .205 in the 12 games before that with an average of 2.25 runs and went 4-12.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We struggled at the end of May, but we’ve been able to turn it around, knowing that when we’re right and healthy we can compete with anybody in this league.”
Hinch was asked if he watched the Mariners on Thursday night after the Astros arrived in town following a day game in Oakland.
“I tried not to. I watch enough of the Mariners,” Hinch joked. “But they’re playing well.”
The Astros have never faced Seattle’s Saturday starter, rookie right-hander Sam Gaviglio (3-1, 3.43 ERA).
“I’m excited about it,” said Gaviglio, who will be making his eighth career start. “They’re in first place in the West … it’s a good challenge for us.”