Losing their edge: Astros, Dusty Baker hand Phillies a World Series advantage by sticking with Lance McCullers Jr.

Let’s skip the speculating and the investigating and the lip-reading. Two innings into World Series Game 3, the Houston Astros didn’t need to know whether Lance McCullers Jr. was tipping his pitches to know that the Philadelphia Phillies were all over them.

Bryce Harper, Alec Bohm and Brandon Marsh went yard off McCullers before he got the sixth out, staking the Phillies to a 4-0 lead that turned into a 7-0 romp. Whether manager Dusty Baker and the Astros believed McCullers was giving the Phillies a hint at what pitch was coming — McCullers denied that being an issue after the game — or thought he was simply getting hit hard, the conclusion in a World Series game should have been the same: Give someone else the ball.

That’s the conclusion almost every manager in recent memory has reached in this scenario. The last starting pitcher to give up even a fourth homer in a World Series game did it in 1967 (Dick Hughes). McCullers stayed in long enough to give up seven runs on five homers, setting a new MLB postseason record as the Astros bullpen — which has allowed a total of four runs in the entire postseason — waited, watching their services fall by the wayside.

When should Dusty Baker have pulled Lance McCullers Jr.?

It feels odd to be discussing Baker leaving a pitcher in too long in the year 2022, but it’s hard to avoid after Tuesday night. The legendary 73-year-old skipper was stuck with a bad reputation for riding Mark Prior and Kerry Wood too hard with the 2003 Cubs, but he changed his ways on that front long, long ago. Baker evolved with the game, and his record of consistently landing in these big postseason games proves as much.

But by sticking with McCullers, Baker put yet another chance at his first managerial championship in serious jeopardy.

Even beyond the results, there were warning signs to consider removing McCullers. His fastball velocity dipped from 94-95 mph in the first inning to 92-93 mph in the second inning.

While McCullers adjusted and got a string of outs following those nightmarish opening frames, the point of no return came in the fifth. With the top of the Phillies order due up for the third time, even conventional regular-season wisdom in 2022 would hold that it was time to get a fresh arm in there. Instead, Baker repeated a mistake made with Justin Verlander in Game 1, allowing his starter to cycle through again.

Two loud homers from Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins later, McCullers was finally, mercifully out.

Lance McCullers Jr. allowed an MLB postseason record five home runs before Astros manager Dusty Baker finally pulled him in World Series Game 3. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Lance McCullers Jr. allowed an MLB postseason record five home runs before Astros manager Dusty Baker finally pulled him in World Series Game 3. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

How Astros gave up their edge in this World Series

There are no middle innings in the World Series. When the margins of a short series are this tight and this important, the regular-season rhythm of pitching decisions go out the window. We saw Phillies manager Rob Thomson show his understanding of this in Game 1.

Coming into the series, into this postseason, Houston looked dangerous for precisely this reason. Their pitching staff was markedly deeper. They are the rare team with a surplus of trusted arms — with six true starters on the roster. And that’s not even taking into account the dominance of their relievers. With a travel day and a rain day in the books, the Astros’ bullpen entered Game 3 fully stocked, so even acknowledging the reality of three games in three days, there were plenty of reasons to move on from McCullers early.

You can fairly point out that nothing Baker did with his pitching moves could have made a difference in the outcome of Game 3 if the Astros offense produced the same goose egg, but there were bigger implications for the series in play.

Namely, by not using their immense pitching depth, the Astros allowed the Phillies to preserve their more limited supply.

When Jose Urquidy did eventually come in for Houston, he threw three scoreless innings. We don’t have a crystal ball to fully play out the counterfactual of what would have happened if he entered for the third, or the fifth, but we do know a fresh arm gave the Astros a better chance at putting pressure on the Phillies.

Think about it this way: The Phillies can make a case that they really need their top starters to go deep in games. They pushed Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler into the third time through the order in the first two games of this series, with split results. The Astros don't need that, especially from McCullers, but no one seems to have told Baker.

McCullers — probably the fourth-best Astros starter right now, behind Verlander, Framber Valdez and Game 4 starter Cristian Javier — somehow faced more batters than Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia’s No. 3 who only made it back for this game thanks to the rain, and proceeded to toss five scoreless innings.

By failing to keep the game close, Baker and the Astros handed over their biggest edge. Thomson and the Phillies went up 2-1 without using any major relief arms. Up seven runs when Suarez exited, they cruised the rest of the way with second-tier bullpen pieces. Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado, David Robertson and Zach Eflin are fully ready for the next two games as none of them have pitched since Friday.

Those two games could suddenly be the end of the road for the Astros.