Gerrit Cole replacement, Lance McCullers, makes first start since 2018

The right hander had Tommy John surgery in 2018

Lance McCullers spun a curveball that Paul Goldschmidt swung over for strike three, then looked toward the Houston dugout.

That was enough on this day.

So McCullers smiled, bounced the ball in and out of his glove a couple times, got a handshake from catcher Martin Maldonado, waited for manager Dusty Baker and walked off the mound.

After being out of the game for more than a year, 16 pitches were plenty.

Sidelined since having Tommy John surgery in November 2018, McCullers started in a spring training game against St. Louis on Sunday and faced three batters. He retired leadoff man Kolten Wong on a soft comebacker, gave up a double to Paul DeJong and fanned Goldschmidt with an 84 mph curve.

“Out of the 16 pitches I threw, really only maybe one or two that I didn’t execute the way I was hoping to pre-pitch,” McCullers said.

“Really happy with just the way I felt overall and just being out there with the guys.”

“I really wanted to face the last batter, but I think we just didn’t want me to get to the point where I was in the middle of a batter and the pitch count got up over what they wanted me to do,” he said.

McCullers’ fastball reached 94 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. His signature pitch is the curve.

“It’s been the easiest to get the feel back for,” he said. “I’m still working on my four-seam, trying to get the four-seam back. I was happy with the way I was moving it around today in the zone.”

McCullers’ healthy return to the starting rotation is a priority for the Astros, so they’re being cautious.

Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke provide a formidable duo at the top of the rotation. With the departure of free agents Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees) and Wade Miley (Cincinnati), McCullers figures to fill the third spot in the rotation.

Several candidates, none of whom have started more than eight major league games in a season, are competing for the final two spots.

A 26-year-old righty, McCullers has started 22 games three times during his four MLB seasons, but never more than that. He posted a 7-4 record with a 4.25 ERA during Houston’s 2017 championship season, a title tainted by the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.

McCullers’ previous outing against big league hitters was in relief on Oct. 17, 2018, in the AL Championship Series against Boston.

“He was smooth with his delivery,” Baker said following Houston’s 5-4 victory. “He wasn’t overthrowing, which I thought he might do from not being out there.”