PHILADELPHIA — A pitching mound can be a solemn place when your presence there leads directly to the perpetual roar of a sold-out World Series crowd.
Lance McCullers Jr. stood atop the hill at Citizens Bank Park and waited for the next batter to step into the box. He looked back to center field, scrunched his face, then lightly kicked the dirt in front of the mound.
Somehow, though, this was still his game. Manager Dusty Baker still entrusted McCullers to keep going. Even though all evidence pointed toward a pitcher that — whatever the reason — just did not have it.
Then it got worse. On the very next batter. A World Series record-setting fifth home run against one pitcher. Finally, the manager had seen enough. Far too late. The Astros lost 7-0 — with all the runs allowed by McCullers.
“The thought process was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings,” Baker said of why he kept his starter in the game for as long as he had. “Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) November 2, 2022
This is the second time in this World Series that Baker has kept his starter in too long. It was arguably more detrimental in Game 1, when Justin Verlander went back out for the fifth, only to lose the final two runs of what was once a five-run lead.
In Game 3, the Astros’ anemic offense maybe wouldn’t have overcome any deficit, let alone the seven runs it eventually became. Still, it was confusing to see McCullers still pitching when Houston’s deep bullpen includes multiple long relievers that were regular-season starters. They would have been perfect for the moment.
But McCullers and his manager felt he’d turned a corner after the second inning. Enough to let Kyle Schwarber get a third look. The decision came at their own peril.
“I don’t think it was a case of being all over the place or not being in the zone,” McCullers said “For the most part I was putting the ball in the areas where I wanted to. I kinda had 2 1/3 there in a row where things started rolling for me, was getting weak contact and good pitches.”
Baker was asked before Game 3 why he’d yet to use Jose Urquidy all postseason. The right-hander had been a regular starter throughout the year but was moved to the bullpen in October. His answer made sense. It was justifiable.
The Astros had played just nine games. Almost all of them close. There haven’t been any obvious spots for a long reliever, even a reliable one.
“With the amount of days that we’ve had off, it hasn’t been necessary … to put him in the game,” Baker said before the game. “He’s kind of our other starter. He’s kind of our long guy. He’s never pitched much in short relief.”
His use, or non-use of Urquidy was justifiable throughout the playoffs up until McCullers started to falter. After the third home run. Or even after the fourth. Maybe somewhere in between to pre-empt McCullers from seeing the Phillies lineup a third time. That would have been the moment to use him.
But Baker managed the game as if it was the meaningless October series these teams played just four weeks ago to end the season. Not Game 3 of the World Series.
“Every day I’m warming up since the beginning of the game, and trying to be warm,” Urquidy said after the game. “Doing my routine and I’m ready for whatever situation.”
Urquidy finally did come in to pitch the sixth inning. At that point, it was way too late. His three shutout innings — four strikeouts and two base runners — proved he deserved a chance to come in sooner.
McCullers has surely earned some latitude. He’s an accomplished major-league starter that has his share of heroic moments in several of the biggest wins in Astros history. Most notably Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS and World Series. He had a 2.77 career ERA before Tuesday’s debacle.
But that was who he was then. And that might be who he is again in Game 7, if this series reaches that moment. It’s not who he was in Game 3 of this series. In this game, he was hittable and predictable. Whether or not he was tipping his pitches, there weren’t many Phillies fooled.
“It was kind of mind-boggling because he doesn’t give up homers,” Baker said of McCullers, who in eight regular-season starts gave up just four homers, and never more than one in a game. “He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark. … What can I say? The linescore looks bad, but they were just hitting us.”
There was no “us” to this. They were hitting McCullers. After he came out, Ryne Stanek entered to strike out both hitters he faced. Then Urquidy dominated. The Phillies have a good offense, but one that can be quelled. McCullers just wasn’t the guy to do it on this night, despite Baker’s confusing confidence in him at a moment when all logic said to make a move.
The performance as a whole might be mind-boggling. But after four balls leave the yard, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it happens again.
“They hit a lot of solid pitches I thought, at the end of the day, we got beat pretty bad,” McCullers said. “And I got beat up pretty bad.”
McCullers rarely throws his fastball to lefty hitters. And then the fastball velocity dropped significantly after the first inning. It was sitting 95-96 then, but more like 93-94 in the innings that followed. It made him more predictable, and less effective overall.
It’s possible there’s more to it. McCullers denied tipping being an issue. The Phillies didn’t say one way or the other.
Whatever the case, there was nothing in McCullers’ performance that would have justified this Phillies lineup seeing him a third time. Only two hitters got the chance. Their batted balls went a combined 817 feet.
McCullers has been a source of stability for this team in the postseason, both this year and in years past. His Astros career is decorated over the last eight years, and for good reason. He may very well be great in a potential Game 7.
But he was bad tonight. And his manager gave him way too much time to prove that.
(Photo of Lance McCullers Jr. and Kyle Schwarber: Eric Hartline / USA Today)