The Lancaster JetHawks ran through the high Class A California League in 2014 and won a championship behind a roster loaded with future major leaguers. Carlos Correa, Rio Ruiz, Tyler White and Tony Kemp lined up across the infield at various points. Brett Phillips and Teoscar Hernandez roamed the outfield. Josh Hader, Chris Devenski and Vince Velasquez all starred out of the starting rotation.
Lance McCullers Jr. was on the team too. He just wasn't much of a factor.
McCullers suffered through a miserable campaign that year even by the standards of the pitcher's nightmare that is Lancaster, where 2,500-foot elevation, whipping 30+ mph winds and a dry, desert climate conspire to create a launching pad.
McCullers went 3-6, 5.27 that season, the worst ERA of any starter on the team except for Mark Appel. He lasted five innings in only eight of his 18 starts. He struck out 10.7 batters-per-nine but also walked 5.2. By the end, evaluators largely considered his ceiling limited to future relief.
"It made me look myself in the mirror a lot different," McCullers at the All-Star Game at Miami in July. "I went through a tough struggle mentally that season where I would wake up some days and just wouldn't want to go to the ballpark. I didn't want to go pitch. I didn't want to give up five or six runs on balls that I thought should be outs. It was tough. It was challenging."
Though he salvaged the year somewhat with six scoreless innings to win Game 2 of the California League championship series, it was still the most disheartening season of McCullers' life.
It was also the turning point that set him on his current path to All-Star status and starting pitcher of tonight's Game Three of the World Series.
McCullers will take the ball as the Fall Classic turns to Houston, a signature distinction in a year that saw him make his first All-Star Game and become an Astros postseason icon with four scoreless innings to wrap up Game Seven of the ALCS.
It's been a ride as rousing as his time in Lancaster was punishing. There is, however, a link between the disparate experiences.
"I got a text at the end of the year from someone I'm close to," McCullers recalled, declining to identify the person. "I sent him a long text complaining about the Cal League basically, and he sent me back a text that said 'If this makes you a better big leaguer, then it was worth it.' And it 100 percent I think has done that because of the way that I treated the next offseason to prepare, and the future to prepare, because I never wanted to experience that type of failure again."
Failure was not something McCullers was accustomed to.
The son of the former big league reliever of the same name, the Tampa native was a First Team All-American as a high school senior, had a scholarship to Florida and was picked in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft by the Astros, who gave him a $2.5 million signing bonus. He delivered ERAs of 3.46 and 3.18 his first two years of pro ball, and was well ahead of his similar-aged peers when he opened in high Class A as a 20-year-old.
He had a fastball that reached 98 mph, a young iteration of the power curveball that would become his signature pitch, and the confidence and demeanor that came with all his previous success.
His time at Lancaster shattered all that. It made him go back to basics, a humbling process but one that served him well.
"I went home and I think a day after I got home I was back in the gym with my trainer in Tampa," he said. "I completely changed the way I ate. I completely changed the way that I physically feel. The way I worked out was different. Everything changed for me. Before I was always kind of ahead of the curve. I was always really good growing up. Not to say I didn't work hard, but it was a different type of work after that season."
Beyond just fitness and mindset readjustment, Lancaster also forced McCullers to address his primary shortcoming—his control.
He walked 4.2 batters-per-nine in Rookie-ball in 2012 after signing and 4.2 again at low Class A Quad Cities in 2013, but got away with it because he had swing-and-miss stuff.
At Lancaster he walked 5.2-per-nine, hit seven other batters and threw 11 wild pitches. This time, he paid a steep price.
"I had a lot of ground balls, just balls that were being put in the air were being hit out and a lot of times because of my walks, it'd be two three-run homers," McCullers said.
"You have to understand when I got drafted, I didn't know how to pitch. I just threw hard, I had a good breaking ball, I didn't really know anything else. It took me a while to figure out that staying on the attack is much, much better….I realized quick that if I kept nitpicking and kept shying away from contact and shying away from being aggressive in the zone, I was going to fall behind a lot and walk a lot of guys."
Even though pinpoint control is still not McCullers' forte, he never walked as many batters-per-nine again, in the majors or the minors.
That improved control was apparent immediately when he showed up at Astros camp the following spring. So were the changes in his fitness, demeanor and mode of attack.
"They recognized that I made progress that season and I think they saw the way I came to spring training and the way I was throwing the ball," McCullers said. "I felt very confident because after spring training broke, three and a half weeks later I got called up to the big leagues."
Indeed, McCullers went 3-1, 0.56 in seven outings at Double-A Corpus Christi, got his first MLB callup and has been part of the Astros rotation ever since. It was a stark turnaround, a byproduct of the changes Lancaster forced him to confront.
McCullers still doesn't remember his season in Lancaster fondly. Few pitchers ever do. But he appreciates the growth it challenged him to make, and credits it for helping him become the pitcher he has.
"I think I complained the whole season. I think I was mad the whole season," he said. "You try to do your best, you try to make the best out of situations, but a lot of times in that league when you're experiencing those types of things, it's hard to. But like I said, that text I got saying that motivated me and made me understand that if I had to suffer for six months to be a more successful big leaguer, which was my goal at the time, then it was worth it, and I think it's paid off."