HOUSTON -- The Astros have tried to convince Lance McCullers Jr. to throw his changeup more often for quite some time now, and the pitch is increasingly emerging as a weapon, thanks in part to the help of veteran catcher Brian McCann, who has been a good influence on the young right-hander.
McCullers threw six scoreless innings, allowing four hits and no walks while striking out seven batters, to lead the Astros to a 5-1 win over the Yankees on Friday night. In his past two road starts, McCullers has thrown 13 innings without allowing an earned run, and he hasn't allowed an earned run in his last 15 1/3 innings pitched overall.
"He's the real deal, man," McCann said of McCullers. "He's a top-of-the-rotation starter for any team, and I feel like he's going to keep getting better and better. Our time together has been amazing. From the first day of Spring Training to now, I feel he's taken huge steps in pitching and locating and establishing both sides of the plate and expanding when he needs to."
McCullers, who has a 0.93 ERA in his last three starts, threw 21 changeups in his 90-pitch outing against the Yankees, to go along with 32 fastballs and 37 curves. That's a huge jump in changeup usage from where he was earlier in the season.
McCullers threw only five changeups in his first start of the season April 4 and only one changeup in 99 pitches in his second start on April 9. Through four starts, McCullers (3-1) had thrown only 24 changeups, but he's gone to it more recently: He threw 23 changeups in 90 pitches (25.6 percent) on April 26, 18 of 105 (17.1 percent) on May 1 and 21 of 88 (23.9 percent) on Saturday in Anaheim.
"I've been working on it a lot midweek," McCullers said. "When I'm able to throw it and get guys off the other pitches that are my two more dominant pitches, I guess you could say, but the last two outings I've had, you could make an argument that's been my best pitch and it's come up pretty big for me in some situations."
After Aaron Judge led off the fifth with a double, McCullers struck out Didi Gregorius on a changeup. After striking out Chase Headley looking on a 95-mph fastball, McCullers stranded Judge by getting Aaron Hicks to swing through a changeup for the last out of the inning.
"It changes the hitter's comfort [level] because they can't just sit [on a fastball] or breaking ball," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "They've got to deal with changes of speeds. It's a power changeup, because it's close to 90 mph. It acts like a two-seam fastball. It's very troublesome for the hitters, but it's just made him a lot more dynamic to especially left-handed hitters, but he's throwing it to some righties and they have to deal with three dimensions, not just the power breaking ball or the fastball away."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.