PHILADELPHIA — There was talk, mostly rooted in Bryce Harper‘s pre-at-bat conversation with Alec Bohm, that Lance McCullers Jr. might have been tipping his pitches on Tuesday night. There was talk that the nine-day layoff, further prolonged by Monday’s postponement, might have played a part in the starter looking uncharacteristically rusty. McCullers didn’t want to hear any of it.
“I got whupped,” he said. “End of story.”
McCullers got beat in a way no man ever has this time of year. He gave up five home runs, the most ever allowed by a single pitcher in a single postseason outing, and made it a point to dismiss any excuses in the aftermath of the Houston Astros‘ 7-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 3 of the World Series.
“We got beat up pretty bad, and I got beat pretty bad,” McCullers said. “I obviously wanted to pitch well, and pitch much better than I did, but at the end of the day, all I can do at this point is get ready to go for a potential Game 7.”
The Astros will need to win two of these next three games to get there. The Phillies, who won 19 fewer regular-season games, have grabbed a 2-1 Series lead by completing an improbable five-run comeback in Game 1 and never letting the Astros breathe in Game 3.
Harper, slashing .382/.414/.818 in these playoffs, turned on a first-pitch, hanging breaking ball and lined it to right field to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Bohm then led off the second by lining a first-pitch sinker out to left, and Brandon Marsh followed with another solo homer on a 2-0 slider, putting the Astros in a 4-0 hole.
The emphatic blows came in the fifth, just after McCullers had seemingly settled in. Kyle Schwarber waited on a 1-2 changeup slightly down and launched it 443 feet to straightaway center field, clearing the arborvitae trees. Five pitches later, Rhys Hoskins turned on a slider to give the Phillies back-to-back home runs and a 7-0 lead.
McCullers exited then, perhaps a little later than he should have. Astros manager Dusty Baker had let him see the top of the Phillies’ lineup a third time, even though he was clearly reeling earlier.
“He had had two good innings, two real good innings,” Baker said, referencing the third and fourth innings, when McCullers retired six consecutive batters. “And then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. I mean, it was my decision.”
McCullers spent most of the 2022 season recovering from a setback to the flexor pronator strain that made him unavailable for the final two rounds of last year’s playoffs. He returned in mid-August and immediately pitched effectively, posting a 2.27 ERA through eight regular-season starts and a 2.45 ERA in his first couple of postseason appearances. He fell within the top 15% in ground ball percentage and home run rate among those who made at least five starts — and then he saw the complete opposite play out in his most important appearance.
McCullers denied that pitch-tipping was at fault.
“This has nothing to do with tipping,” he said, dismissing speculation that began with Harper getting in Bohm’s ear moments before he hit the first McCullers pitch he saw for a home run.
The Astros’ co-pitching coach, Joshua Miller, echoed similar thoughts.
“We didn’t identify anything specific today,” Miller said. “It’s something that we always monitor and look into.”
But McCullers nonetheless approached this outing with a very predictable trait: Through his first two postseason starts, he had thrown only one fastball to opposing left-handed hitters. Lefties were basically able to narrow their selection to either McCullers’ curveball or breaking ball, the two pitches he throws most often, and they barely missed their chances. Three of the homers McCullers gave up — to Harper, Marsh and Schwarber — were to left-handed hitters. He totaled just one swing and miss against lefties in Game 3, a sign to Miller that his curveball, his best pitch against them, was not sharp.
“Listen,” McCullers said, “I am who I am. I’m going to throw a lot of off-speed. Everyone knows that.”
One-hundred and eighty-seven starting pitchers threw at least 750 pitches this season, and only one of them, Edward Cabrera of the Miami Marlins, threw fastballs less often than McCullers, who threw either a cutter or sinker just 32.3% of the time. Against lefties, that rate dropped to less than 25% — and became even more pronounced in the postseason.
McCullers said he didn’t like the location on his curveball to Harper but that the quality of his pitches was good enough.
“I would check on the iPads; my stuff was there,” McCullers said. “The movement was there. The location, for the most part, was there. I made a couple mistakes, and unfortunately for me, they hit it out of the ballpark.”
Before Tuesday night, McCullers hadn’t allowed a home run on any of the 651 off-speed pitches he had thrown this season. Then four of them went out. The Phillies had seen him near the end of the regular season, when McCullers pitched six innings of one-run ball on Oct. 3, and had gathered better intel on the shape of his breaking balls.
If McCullers pitches again, it’ll be in Game 7, from Houston, on Sunday night.
The Astros need to earn their way there.
“I still believe if we get to that point, I’m the best guy to take the ball,” McCullers said. “I just got to pitch better. That’s it.”