HOUSTON – A.J. Hinch took over as Houston's manager before right-hander Lance McCullers' rookie season in 2015, and the two have long held a special bond.
So when McCullers came off the mound after striking out a career-high in 12 in seven strong innings in an 11-4 win over the White Sox on Friday night, Hinch wanted to make sure he let his pitcher know how impressed he was with his big night.
He did that by enveloping him in a huge bear hug as soon as he reached the dugout when his work was done.
"I was so happy with the progress," Hinch said. "He's got so many options now against any hitter. ... I love the growth that's happening for him as a major league starting pitcher. ... He knows what he's going through and how he's taking steps forward. It's cool to have a moment with him."
Evan Gattis hit a three-run homer in Houston's seven-run eighth to help the Astros to the victory.
McCullers (10-3) didn't allow a hit until a single by Adam Engel with one out in the sixth and gave up only three singles and one run. He kept the Sox off balance with a flurry of curveballs to outdo his previous career best of 11 strikeouts.
"I came up in 2015 and was really just a young kid," McCullers said. "I had to learn a lot and he's definitely been someone who has really helped me along the way in all phases as a pitcher, a baseball player and as a person. I give a lot of credit to A.J., the veterans, the staff."
Sox manager Rick Renteria raved about his curveball.
"His breaking ball today was sweeping with some depth," he said. "Strong breaking ball. It was a lot of breaking balls. Even going to the plate to be honest [and] looking for it, that thing was falling off the table pretty good."
The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the third on an RBI single by Yuli Gurriel. Tim Federowicz hit a two-run double in the fourth to make it 3-0.
After Engel's single in the sixth, Yoan Moncada sent him to third with a single to right field. The Sox cut the lead to 3-1 with a third straight single, this one by Yolmer Sanchez. After a quick visit to the mound, McCullers was able to limit the damage when Jose Abreu grounded into a double play.
The Astros added a run in the seventh on an RBI double by Gattis to make it 4-1. They broke it open in the eighth inning thanks in part to the homer by Gattis, who finished with three hits and four RBIs. The towering shot off Hector Santiago landed on the train tracks atop left field. Two more runs scored in that inning on an error by right fielder Avisail Garcia when he misjudged a fly ball hit by Gurriel and it bounced behind him just inside the line and sailed into the stands.
Sox starter Reynaldo Lopez (4-6) yielded six hits and three runs while tying a career high with five walks in 4 2/3 innings to snap a two-game winning streak.
McCullers won his fourth straight decision to join Charlie Morton as the first Houston pitchers to reach 10 wins this season.
He was tough from the start of this one, retiring the first six batters, including striking out the side in the second, before hitting Kevan Smith with a pitch to start the third. But he got right back on track, and struck out the next three to end the inning as part of 10 straight he sat down before Engel's single in the sixth.
Garcia, whose career-best 14-game hitting streak was snapped Thursday night, hit a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth, and Daniel Palka followed with a solo shot off Brad Peacock.
Sox: Shortstop Tim Anderson was out of the lineup a night after being plunked on the left forearm. Anderson said he was sore but OK and Renteria expects him to return to the lineup Saturday.
Astros: Hinch said he believes that catcher Brian McCann will return before the end of the regular season after he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Tuesday. "I do expect him back," Hinch said. "I don't know when ... and he's got a lot of things he needs to do to get back to playing, but I absolutely expect him to be back."
The Astros dedicated Friday's victory to Cameron Gooch, a 10-year-old who is fighting cancer and attended the game as part of his wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Gooch was helped to the mound by Hinch and Gattis to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and they both wore orange armbands he gave to them during the game.
Morton (10-2, 2.55 ERA) opposes James Shields (3-9, 4.12) when the series continues Saturday. Morton took his second loss of the season in his last outing when he allowed six hits and two runs while striking out 11 in 6 2/3 innings against Tampa Bay. Shields yielded four hits and a run in 6 2/3 innings in his last start, but did not factor in the decision in a 5-3 loss to Cincinnati.