HOUSTON -- Collin McWho?
That was the question on the minds of the majority of Astros fans -- and much of the baseball world -- when journeyman right-hander Collin McHugh struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his first start with Houston on April 22 in Seattle.
McHugh, called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City when ace Scott Feldman got injured, came within one out of throwing a one-hit shutout in his following start Sunday against Oakland, increasing the intrigue and mystery surrounding the 26-year-old.
McHugh will take the ball again Sunday at Minute Maid Park against the Mariners with a 2-0 record and a 0.59 ERA, but the question remains -- who is McHugh?
"I made my debut in August 2012 with the Mets, and from that point on, it's been up and down," he said. "I was up and down with the Mets two or three times. Then I get designated, then get traded [to the Rockies] and go down again, and then designated again and picked up again.
"To be able to come here and immediately have success and have the confidence of the team and the staff, it feels good. I hope I can make it stick here. I would really like to."
McHugh was acquired off waivers from the Rockies in December as an inventory arm, someone to stash at Oklahoma City until there was a need in Houston. That happened when Feldman's shoulder didn't quite feel right following his third start, giving McHugh a shot.
Prior to the start against the Mariners, McHugh was 0-8 with an 8.94 ERA in 15 career Major League games, including nine starts, so there was little reason to believe he'd be as dominant as he's been. He's struck out 19 batters and allowed three walks, one run and five hits in 15 1/3 innings.
McHugh is the third pitcher to win his first two games with Houston and strike out at least 19, joining J.R. Richard in 1971 and Randy Johnson in '98. Pretty lofty company.
"I knew that there were going to be players stepping up this year," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Was Collin McHugh at the top of my list of guys that would step up? No. But am I happy? Absolutely. I really think it just goes to show you our scouting department does a great job identifying players."
In fact, the Astros had previously identified McHugh as a player they wanted in a trade with the Mets that never materialized.
"We kept our eye on him, and when he became available, we didn't hesitate to take him," Luhnow said. "Our scouts saw something in him they believed would be successful at the Major League level, and so after two starts, they're proven to be pretty wise. I'm excited about it. It's a great story."
McHugh grew up in a musical family in Georgia, the third of four children of Scott and Teresa McHugh. His older brother and sister, Evan and Eryn, are songwriters in Nashville, Tenn., and his youngest brother, Colby, is a film major at Georgia State University.
"I'm the dumb jock of the family," McHugh joked.
The right-hander has some artistic talents as well. McHugh grew up playing instruments like the clarinet and saxophone, and he has dabbled in the drums and now plays the guitar and ukulele. He also pens a blog, adayolderadaywiser.com, in which he writes about life and baseball.
McHugh pursued a career in baseball after he was drafted in the 18th round by the Mets in 2008 out of NAIA Berry College, where he was a business finance major.
"When I got drafted, I said I was going to give myself five years [to reach the Majors]," McHugh said. "At the end of five years, if I didn't think anything has happened, I don't feel like I'm close, I'll reconsider. I'm not a dumb guy. I could do something. I could finish my degree, get a good job."
McHugh and his wife, Ashley, would take inventory at the end of each season, and it was near the end of the 2012 season -- his fifth in professional baseball -- when he was called up by the Mets. He threw seven scoreless innings, striking out nine, in his Major League debut, only to be sent down the next day. McHugh wound up appearing in eight games that year, making four starts.
"Mentally, what it does to you, I don't know," he said. "You think, 'Am I good enough to keep doing this? Can I keep doing this? Do they have faith in me?' So to kind of battle through that and change roles a bunch of times and go from the bullpen to the rotation and back to the bullpen and then sit, it's been tough."
Tough enough for McHugh to consider throwing in the towel several times.
"Every baseball player at this level thinks about it kind of as a self-defense, self-preservation mechanism," he said. "This game is tough, man. It will get you down. You have it in the back of your mind, 'Can I do something else? Is there anything else I could be doing?' The game can become too big, it becomes too much pressure."
McHugh came to his senses and realized the opportunity to return to the Major Leagues, even though it's a grind, was something worth chasing.
"There's not a lot of better jobs in my opinion," he said. "That's where we are."
With Houston, McHugh has learned to pitch to all four quadrants of the plate to be successful. And now he's pitching with confidence, pitching coach Brent Strom said.
"I think he believes he's good, and that goes a long way for me," Strom said. "Despite the history and his numbers he's had in the past with the Rockies and Mets, I don't think this young man ever lost faith in his ability. He's made some adjustments, and obviously it's shown in these first two games, and hopefully he can keep it going."
McHugh summed up his first 10 days with the Astros as nothing short of a dream.
"In a good way," he said. "Hopefully, in a realistic way, I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do. So far, it's been a matter of going out and performing. If I can go out there and execute well, I don't see any reason why I can't have some success and help this team win some games."