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McCullers excellent, Gibson infinite in one in a million duel

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Astros fall short against Rangers 1-0 in classic pitcher’s duel

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When starting pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Kyle Gibson trotted to the outfield to begin their pregame routines a half-hour before Wednesday’s first pitch, neither likely envisioned the duel that was about to take place. Both simply wanted to pitch well, a quality start would be a welcome change for either. McCullers entered with a 5.79 ERA, returning from the injured list (neck) after not recording an out in his last start on Sept. 4. Meanwhile, Gibson’s ERA sat at 6.14, a major disappointment for the first-year Ranger.

Both starting pitchers turned a huge corner in their respective seasons, but one clutch hit off the bat of Joey Gallo in the ninth inning ended up being the difference. Gibson ended up with a four-hit shutout in a 1-0 Rangers victory.

McCullers was outstanding, turning the clock back to his 2017 All-Star campaign with seven scoreless frames of two-hit ball with eight strikeouts. The only baserunners he allowed were on a pair of doubles - retiring 12 batters in a row during the stretch. He struck out the side in the second inning, including whiffing Anderson Tejada to end a threat after Rougned Odor picked up a two-bagger. He threw just 86 pitches, 61 of them for strikes. McCullers’ gem was reminiscent of his work on Aug. 10, when he blanked the Giants on one hit over seven innings.

However, the problem was that Gibson matched McCullers nearly pitch for pitch. The Astros best chance to score against him came in the first inning, when Springer ripped his initial offering into left field for a base hit. Springer was thrown out trying to steal, an important factor because Gibson walked Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman. Kyle Tucker struck out looking to leave two on base and that is the last time Houston would have multiple runners on at the same time.

Altuve singled in the third, as did Tucker in the seventh. Tucker was originally granted a steal of second base, but the play was reversed after a challenge from Rangers skipper Chris Woodward.

Gibson’s pitch count was not yet into the nineties when he began the eighth, recording the first two outs with ease. He issued a free pass to Martin Maldonado but held tough against Springer, striking him out with his 97th offering on the night.

Josh James was sharp in a scoreless eighth and Ryan Pressly came back out for the ninth after recording a save on Tuesday. Pressly fell victim to a game of inches - literally. Yuli Gurriel twice misplayed a ball hit by Leody Taveras to start the inning, first in the air and second on the ground. It was ruled an infield single and Taveras was at second base with two outs when Pressly jumped ahead of Joey Gallo 0-2. A couple of pitches later, Gallo ripped a line drive just barely fair down the right-field line for a double, plating Taveras with the game’s first run. After a walk, Dusty Baker turned to Enoli Paredes, who punched out Odor to end the inning.

Gibson trotted back out for the bottom of the ninth and froze Altuve with a sinker. Up next: Michael Brantley. Equally frozen on a similar pitch, with perhaps an even more incredulous reaction. Last hope: Bregman, and he lined a double down the left-field line. After a mound visit, Kyle Tucker demolished a 2-0 pitch...right into the glove of a lunging Ronald Guzman at first base. Ballgame over, and the most unlikely of complete-game shutouts came to fruition for Kyle Gibson.

Houston’s loss combined with an Oakland win pushed the A’s first-place lead to 6.5 games and their magic number to clinch the division is now just four. Third-place Seattle was trailing 5-0 at publication time, so there was a chance to stay two games clear of them.

The Rangers had last defeated the Astros 1-0 on May 11, 2018, also at Minute Maid Park. Gibson became the first pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout against Houston since Lucas Giolito did so last May 23.

The two teams will wrap up their three-game set with a rubber match tomorrow at 6:10 p.m. CT. The Astros will turn to southpaw Framber Valdez (3-3, 4.08) while 2008 Houston first-round pick Jordan Lyles (1-4, 7.80) is expected to get the ball for Texas.