- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 20, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - When last seen, Lance McCullers plunked four Los Angeles Dodgers during the first three innings of Game 7 of the World Series.

On Tuesday, a few hours before his first live bullpen session of the spring with the Houston Astros, the game within a game between pitcher and hitter was still much on his mind.

With baseball imposing new pace of play rules - one of which limits mound visits to six per game - McCullers took a moment during his workout to tweet:

“You think I want to break rhythm and tempo during a game to talk about signs behind my glove? No, It’s a necessary reaction to an issue we, as pitchers and catcher, are facing. I guess enforcing the integrity by hitting batters is better than an extra 4 minutes to discuss signs.”

Brush-back pitches have long been a pitcher’s remedy against sign stealing, as have mound visits by the catcher to change sign sequences.

“Do you think that I call (catcher Brian) McCann out to the mound to ask how his day’s going? I know how it’s going,” said McCullers, who deleted the tweet after talking with the media, saying such conversations offered a better platform to explain his thinking than Twitter did.

“Players are dedicated to making the game more crisp. We’re dedicated to making it a better product, but at the same time we’re also dedicated to making sure the fans get the best quality product in the field that they can.”

McCullers didn’t need any meetings with McCann on Tuesday. He kept the live bullpen session simple: fastballs and change-ups only.

“If he would have started a game today, with his live bullpen, he would have thrown a no-hitter,” McCann said. “That’s how good he was out there. And he didn’t throw a breaking ball today.”

That breaking ball, which mixes the speed of a curve with the increased velocity of a slider, is McCullers‘ out pitch. He threw 24 consecutive breaking balls against the Yankees in a four-inning save to close Game 7 of the ALCS.

Entering spring last season McCullers told himself not to throw the pitch too early in spring, but once games started he let his competitive side get the better of him.

“I couldn’t control myself,” he said. “I had to throw it. Now I literally have not thrown it, so it’s not even an option.”

The 24-year-old right-hander hopes to make it through his first two Grapefruit League outings throwing only fastballs and change-ups.

After breaking his no-early-breaking-ball vow last spring, McCullers raced to a 7-1 start through mid June and an All-Star selection before a back injury all but wrecked the second half of his season. He didn’t win another regular-season game all year.

“I was hindering the ability of the club to become the team that we wanted to be,” McCullers said. “I was going out there. I wouldn’t make it through the fourth and fifth inning because I was just pitching through too much pain.”

McCullers began the postseason pitching out of the bullpen before starting in one of his two appearances against the Yankees. He started twice against the Dodgers in the World Series, earning the Game 3 win after allowing three runs on four hits in 5 1/3 innings.

“He can pitch in any game you ask,” manager A. J. Hinch said. “We asked him to start Game 7 of the World Series. I think that tells you what we think of him and how much we trust him.”

As good as McCullers is, Houston doesn’t need him to be the ace - not with Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton slotted ahead of him in the rotation.

“You can call him an ace, you can call him anything you want,” Hinch said. “The day he pitches is the day that we expect to win. And I think that’s the most respect you can give to a starting pitcher.”

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