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Right-hander Lance McCullers draws a left hand in an ode to Houston | WGN 720 Radio

HOUSTON (AP) — Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. wasn’t born in Houston, but now he loves it.

Hailing from Tampa, Florida, McCullers has been perhaps the most vocal about his love of the space city to Astro.

“I’ve only got one thing to say — and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” he said in a television interview after Houston won the ALCS. “Bury me in H.”

McCullers will represent his beloved, adopted city when he starts Game 3 of the World Series against Noah Syndergaard and the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night as Houston looks to take a 2-1 series lead.

While his right hand tries to lead the Astros to victory, his left brings reminders of the city he has come to love so much.

Astronaut tattooed on left tricep with Commissioner’s Trophy on chest. The bottom of the astronaut transforms into a dripping, inverted image of the Houston skyline in downtown Houston, a nod to what the city experienced when it was flooded after Hurricane Harvey.

Beneath it, in neat block letters, are the words: “BE KIMMY,” an exact reproduction of the iconic local graffiti that adorns the railroad bridge on Interstate 45 south of downtown, near Minute Maid Park.

“Houston is one of those cities where most of the people who now live here and call it home came here to try to make something of themselves,” he said. “And I found myself as a young person in that position and I really feel like I resonate with the grit and determination that they strive for and just feel a connection to the city since I’ve been here.”

McCullers was drafted by the Astros in the first round of the 2012 draft and made his MLB debut three years later. He spent seven seasons in Houston, sitting out 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

McCullers and his wife Kara are Houston residents and have worked for years to make it better. They have been involved in many charitable causes in the city since Harvey in 2017 and are passionate about rescuing animals. Through the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation, the couple supports no-kill shelters and pet adoptions throughout Houston and beyond.

McCullers, 29, is under contract through the 2026 season, but he hopes to stay with the Astros long after that.

“My adult life, since I was 21, Houston is really most of what I’ve known,” he said. “So I think I just felt a connection to the city and the people. I’ve loved my time here and it’s my home and hopefully will remain my home for as long as I play.”

McCullers will be making his first World Series appearance since starting Game 7 in 2017 when Houston defeated the Dodgers 5-1 to win its first title.

Although McCullers started the game that gave Houston the championship, he is most remembered that postseason for his performance in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.

McCullers threw 24 fastballs to six batters to get the final six outs of the game and send Houston into the series.

McCullers does have a nasty curveball, but he threw it that night not because it was a particularly good pitch, but out of necessity. Earlier in the game, he landed awkwardly on the pitch and his leg felt weird when he threw his fastball.

“And I threw the first breaking ball and I was like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t hurt,'” he said. “I threw it again and said, ‘yeah, it doesn’t hurt either.’ So just kept rolling with it.”

Don’t look for a curveball extravaganza on Monday.

“It was a special night and an event for me,” he said. “I don’t know if I can top it. I think I’m more of a complete pitcher now (than) ripping off 24 in a row, but you never know.”

He missed the 2019 trip after having Tommy John surgery and was forced to sit out last year’s series after injuring his forearm in the ALCS.

“There are moments that mean so much to me, and they mean more than they did early in my career,” McCullers said. “I’m really happy to be a part of this group. It’s a once in a lifetime run.”

He missed most of the season with a forearm injury. He didn’t make his season debut until August 13 and made just eight starts in the regular season.

He started two games this postseason, pitching six scoreless innings in Houston’s 18-inning victory over Seattle in Game 3 of the ALDS and starting the clinching game of the ALCS victory over the Yankees.

“He’s a big pitcher, wants the ball,” said Josh Miller, Houston’s pitching coach. “We want him there and are glad to see him go (Monday). He’s got an elite curveball-slider combination with a sinker and a changeup in addition, and he’ll be ready for whatever it takes.”

McCullers made 18 postseason appearances over six seasons, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA.

The Astros lost to Atlanta in six games in last year’s World Series. After punching their ticket to this year’s Fall Classic, manager Dusty Baker asked why this year’s team was better prepared than the 2021 team to win it all.

“Well, first of all, we have Lance McCullers, which we didn’t have going into (this) World Series,” Baker said.

McCullers joins Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and fellow starter Justin Verlander as the only players left from the 2017 championship team tainted by the illegal sign theft that rocked baseball. McCullers has been subjected to vitriol over this deception and knows that many will never let the Astros get over it.

He tries to ignore the negativity and focus on the support the team has always received from friends, family and Astros fans. But he knows a repeat win could help change people’s minds about the Astros past and present.

“I think it still means a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “And I think the championship will go a long way in helping guys who maybe aren’t around anymore feel that validation.”

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