World Series Game 3: Lance McCullers Jr. disputes he was tipping pitches as Phillies mash 5 home runs

PHILADELPHIA– There were rumors, mostly rooted in Bryce Harper’s pre-punch conversation with Alec Bohm, that Lance McCullers Jr. may have had his seat flipped Tuesday night. There was talk that the nine-day layoff, further extended by Monday’s postponement, may have played a role in the starter motor looking unusually rusty. McCullers didn’t want to hear about that.

“I was whipped,” he said. “End of the story.”

McCullers was hit like no man had this time of year. He gave up five home runs, the most ever allowed by a single pitcher in a single postseason game, and made a point of dismissing all excuses after the Houston Astros’ 7-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 3 of the World Series.

“We got pretty beat up, and I got pretty beat up,” McCullers said. “I obviously wanted to serve well and serve a lot better than me but at the end of the day at this point I can only be ready to prepare for a potential Game 7.”

The Astros need to win two of those next three games to get there. The Phillies, who have won 19 fewer games in the regular season, have carved out a 2-1 lead in the series by making an unlikely five-run comeback in Game 1 and never letting the Astros breathe in Game 3.

Harper, who was hitting .382/.414/.818 in those playoffs, spun a first pitch ball and carried it to right field to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Bohm then led from second by lining out a sinker on the first pitch to the left, and Brandon Marsh followed up with another solo homer on a 2-0 shifter, putting the Astros in a 4-0 hole.

The emphatic punches came in the fifth just after McCullers had seemingly settled in. Waiting for a 1-2 move down slightly, Kyle Schwarber launched it 443 feet to direct midfield, clearing the arborvitae trees. Five pitches later, Rhys Hoskins turned on a slider to give the Phillies back-to-back home runs and a 6-0 lead.

McCullers then got out, perhaps a little later than he should have done. Astros manager Dusty Baker had let him see a third time atop the Phillies’ lineup, though earlier he’d clearly faltered.

“He had two good innings, two really good innings,” Baker said, referring to the third and fourth innings when McCuller retired six straight batsmen. “And then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t let anyone go. I mean it was my decision.”

Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. leaves the game in the fifth inning in Game 3 of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

McCullers spent most of the 2022 season recovering from a setback from the flexor-pronator strain that left him unavailable for the final two rounds of last year’s playoffs. He returned in mid-August and immediately served effectively, posting a 2.27 ERA in eight regular season starts and a 2.45 ERA in his first postseason appearances. Among those who made at least five starts, he fell in the top 15% for groundball percentage and home run rate—and then saw the complete opposite in his most important performance.

McCullers denied that pitch tipping was to blame.

“This has nothing to do with tipping,” he said, dismissing speculation that began with Harper catching Bohm just before he hit the first McCullers spot he saw for a home run.

The Astros’ co-pitching coach Joshua Miller expressed similar thoughts.

“We didn’t find anything specific today,” Miller said. “It’s something we’re always monitoring and investigating.”

But McCullers nonetheless approached that game with a very predictable trait: During his first two starts after the season, he’d thrown only one fastball at opposing left-handers. The left-handers could basically narrow their choices to either McCullers’ curveball or breaking ball, the two pitches he throws most often, and they narrowly missed their chances. Three of the homers McCullers gave up — on Harper, Marsh, and Schwarber — were on lefties. He recorded just one hit and one miss against lefties in Game 3, a sign for Miller that his curveball, his best shot against them, wasn’t 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 pitchers threw at least 750 pitches that season, and only one of them, Edward Cabrera of the Miami Marlins, threw fewer fastballs than McCullers, who threw either a cutter or a sinker just 32.3% of the time. Against lefties, that rate dropped to less than 25% – and got even more pronounced in the postseason.

McCullers said he didn’t like the position on his curveball versus Harper, but the quality of his pitches was good enough.

“I would check the iPads; my stuff was there,” McCullers said. “The movement was there. The location was mostly there. I made a few mistakes and unfortunately for me, they hit it from inside the stadium.”

As of Tuesday night, McCullers hadn’t allowed a home run on any of the 651 off-speed pitches he’s thrown this season. Then four of them went out. The Phillies had seen him late in the regular season when McCullers pitched six innings of one-run balls on October 3, and had better information on the shape of his breaking balls.

If McCullers serves again, it will be in Game 7 from Houston on Sunday night.

The Astros need to earn their way there.

“I still think if we get to that point I’ll be the best man to take the ball,” said McCullers. “I just have to hit better. That’s it.”

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