Would it be inappropriate to inquire why Lance McCullers Jr. was allowed to pitch deep into the fifth inning of Tuesday night’s World Series Game 3?
I get that McCullers is considered one of the mound aces for the Houston Astros. I get that Dusty Baker trusts him. I get that it’s considered sacrilege to second-guess Dusty Baker, who is America’s grandpa.
But for heaven’s sake, couldn’t we inject a reality check?
From the jump on Tuesday night, anybody could tell that McCullers did not have his usual command of the off-speed repertoire that is the heart of his game. Normally a breaking ball master, he missed badly with four of them to leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, then hung a knuckle curve over the worst possible spot — the heart of the plate — to Bryce Harper. Harper hit it 10 rows deep into the right-center field seats.
The first two innings from Lance McCullers Jr. should have been all the tipoff one needed that he did not have it in World Series Game 3.
He threw 25 of his specialty offspeed pitches in those two innings, missing with 14 of them and wishing he’d missed with the rockets struck by Harper and Brandon Marsh. (Alec Bohm also homered, but he hit a belt-high sinker, not that that’s any better.)
It’s not as if the Phillies’ early onslaught put the game out of reach and — at least at that moment — made a move irrelevant. Philadelphia still only led 4-0 at that point. As Astros fans are painfully aware, the last team to erase an early deficit of four or more runs and go on to win a World Series game was the Phillies, who did so just last week.
The Astros were obviously capable of recovering from an early deficit. They trailed the New York Yankees by three runs after two innings in Game 3 of the recent ALCS, a game they came back to win 6-5. They were four down to Seattle after two innings of their first post-season game Oct. 11 and won 8-7.
It’s also not as if Baker lacked bullpen options. In fact, the Houston manager had more options than a reasonable person would know what to do with. Since the Astros polished off the Yankees a full eight days ago, only three relievers (Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly) had thrown as many as 30 pitches in recent games.
Four other relievers were lightly used Saturday. A final three, among them Jose Urquidy, hadn’t been used at all. Urquidy had a 13-8 record and sub-4.00 ERA in 28 starts and his postseason role apparently was precisely to cover for a non-performing starter such as McCullers.
I suppose you could make an argument that since Urquidy hadn’t pitched at all in October, it would have been unfair, inopportune or some other disqualifying adjective to bring him in at that desultory point. But if you buy that logic, then precisely why was Urquidy kept on the World Series roster at all?
Baker didn’t buy that logic. He finally came around to Urquidy in the sixth. That was after McCullers left a changeup over the plate to Schwarber, who sent it to its proper place — the center field shrubbery. And it was after McCullers fed Rhys Hoskins a thigh-high slider that Hoskins converted into the night’s fifth souvenir.
It was Hoskins’ blast that finally persuaded Baker he’d seen enough of McCullers on this particular evening. He’d faced 20 batters. Five of those 20 took him deep.
For what it’s worth, Urquidy pitched three innings of one-hit ball.
By night’s 7-0 end, it was clear that it wouldn’t have made any difference how long Baker stayed with McCullers. Harper’s two-run first inning home run was sufficient to do in the Astros given that they did not score at all. All the rest, while inglorious for the visitors and their fans, was from a strategic standpoint gratuitous.
Even the Astros, for all their inventiveness, haven’t figured out how to win without scoring.