Astros' McCullers looks to regain top form vs. Tigers (Jul 30, 2017)

BY AP • July 29, 2017

DETROIT -- April and May in August and September?

That's kind of how Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch is seeing it as two of his key pitchers are returning to action from long injury layoffs as the Astros march toward a seemingly certain postseason berth.

Left-hander Dallas Keuchel and right-hander Collin McHugh are getting fresh starts after missing significant time because of injury.

There is also the matter of getting Lance McCullers Jr. back on track when he pitches Sunday against Detroit since the right-hander is another integral part of what might happen with Houston in the playoffs.

"We're going to run into some tricky things moving forward with some off days," Hinch said, noting the Astros have three Mondays off in August. "But I think, getting a routine for all of our guys, especially the guys coming off the DL, will be key.

"Being fresh at this time of year, so to speak fresh for (McHugh), should be a little bit of an advantage. Where how good guys feel in April and May compared to how you normally feel in July and August, he's got that advantage going for him."

McHugh made his second start of the season Saturday night in Detroit, having not pitched at all after being diagnosed with right shoulder tendinitis in spring training. It went well as he gave up four hits, walked one, struck out seven and gave up one run in six innings.

Keuchel, 9-0 in the early going, made his first start Friday night since June 2 because of neck issues. He should get sharper going forward.

McCullers has scuffled for three straight starts but takes a 7-2 record and 3.67 ERA into Sunday. In his most recent start, last Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, he gave up nine hits and six runs in 4 2/3 innings to take the loss.

He is 2-0 with 1.64 ERA in two previous starts against the Tigers. In his only start against Detroit this year, McCullers pitched five scoreless innings, allowing only one hit, while striking out five and walking two.

"His command of his pitches has been a little bit off," Hinch said. "I think the timing of his delivery, I think everything has been a little bit off. His delivery's been a little bit off, his fastball command has been a little bit off.

"His ability to finish hitters off; he's had some long at-bats, which is a little bit uncommon for him. So it's been a little bit of everything as opposed to one direct thing that's the key to everything.

"I think strike one is a key for Lance. It gets guys into swing mode. His ability to throw his fastball where he wants sets up all of his pitches. So I guess if there's one thing we're looking for, it's his ability to throw his fastball where he wants.

"Especially against this team. If you live in one area, specifically away to these right-handed hitters, they do as good a job as anybody in the league at hitting ball to the opposite field for power. If he can get ahead and find a way to exploit their weakness, that would be the key."

Right-hander Justin Verlander (5-7, 4.50 ERA) starts for Detroit amid the uncertainty of whether he will be traded before the Monday non-waiver trade deadline.

Manager Brad Ausmus realizes the "he's staying, he's going" chatter that has surrounded several members of his Tigers for at least three weeks can affect some players.

"There is an effect," he said, "in the sense that guys maybe feel like they're floating around a little bit. It's probably more of a distraction for the individual players whose names are being discussed, written about, talked about, than me. For me, I kind of have tunnel vision.

"We have a game today, try to win today. It's probably a little more distracting to a player who feels he has an uncertain future.

"There's no question experience helps (in dealing with it). Especially nowadays with the media aspect of professional sports. Experience is a big benefit to a player. The truth is most of the guys talked about are veteran guys."

Verlander allowed three runs on five hits in seven innings in a loss to Kansas City on Monday in his most recent start.

He has started eight games against Houston in his career with a 4-0 record and 2.83 ERA. In his only appearance against the Astros this season, Verlander gave up nine hits and six runs in 5 2/3 innings, but did not get a decision.

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