PHILADELPHIA — Lance McCullers Jr. had just set a World Series record by surrendering five home runs in a game and he wasn’t having any of it. Not the pitch-tipping theories that were wildly circulating on social media, not the possibility that he was rusty after having pitched just twice since Oct. 3, none of it.
“Listen,” he said after the Astros had absorbed a 7-0 beating by the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 3 of the World Series. “I am who I am. I’m going to throw a lot of off-speed. Everyone knows that.”
The two-run home run Bryce Harper smashed in the first inning on a first-pitch curveball was in a poor location, McCullers said. But as hot as Harper is, maybe if it was in a better location the lefty still would have blasted it, McCullers added.
“I got beat, man, you know?” he said. “They hit a lot of solid pitches, I thought. But at the end of the day, we got beat pretty bad. And I got beat up pretty bad. I obviously wanted to pitch well and pitch better than I did. But at the end of the day, all I can do is go and get ready for Game 7.”
After taking their 7-0 beating to fall behind the Phillies two games to one in a World Series that started with Houston as the heavy favorites, what was notable about the tone in the Astros’ postgame clubhouse was their lowered standards. McCullers talked about preparing for Game 7 because, if this series stretches that far, he likely will be the man to get the ball. He talked about squeezing out one win in the three games here to guarantee that the series will return to Houston for Game 6.
Suddenly, the team that breezed through the regular season and then started the postseason 7-0 has realized that it has stepped into an alley fight.
And with a sellout crowd of 45,712 roaring so loud that Citizens Bank Park seemed to be shaking for much of the night, things are not about to get easier in Games 4 and 5.
That McCullers was torched for five home runs was a stunning development because he is not a pitcher who usually is hurt by the long ball.
In 47⅔ regular season innings in 2022, he allowed only four home runs.
In four and a third innings in Game 3, the Phillies lit him up for five.
He threw 78 pitches overall, 52 of which were strikes. Which means nearly 10 percent of his strikes were redirected over the fences at Citizens Bank Park.
“It was kind of mind-boggling because he doesn’t give up homers,” Houston Manager Dusty Baker said. “He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark. He wasn’t satisfied with it. We were very surprised by it.”
The eye-raising moment that went viral came five batters into the game. Harper had just blasted the homer, Nick Castellanos was in the batter’s box and Alex Bohm was on deck when Harper hollered from the dugout: “Hey Bohmer! Bohmer! I may have something! Hey!”
Bohm came back to the dugout railing and Harper leaned in for several seconds of intense conversation. Castellanos ended the inning with a ground ball, but Bohm started the second inning by belting McCullers’s first pitch, a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, over the left-field fence.
Harper did not go into what he said, but he did acknowledge that the exchange happened.
“I think anytime you have information you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,” Harper said.
Had Harper read something that McCullers was doing and deliver the information to Bohm? Circumstantial evidence sure pointed in that direction. But the Phillies predictably weren’t about to give anything up and the Astros claimed ignorance.
“I think guys have conversations all the time before at-bats, before innings, things like that,” McCullers said when asked directly about the Harper-Bohm chat. “I’m not going to sit here and say anything like that. I got whupped. End of story.”
He also said there were no between-innings conversations in the Astros dugout covering even the possibility that the Phillies had picked up on a tell.
“No,” McCullers said. “This has nothing to do with tipping. I’m not going to sit here and stand in front of you guys and blame something. I was out there and they beat me and they beat us and that’s it.”
Bohm’s was the only fastball hit for a homer, and McCullers said the pitch “leaked in” over the plate too much. Brandon Marsh got an 83-m.p.h. slider in the second that McCullers did not think was a mistake. Kyle Schwarber annihilated an 87-m.p.h. changeup in the fifth on a 1-2 count that was the longest drive of the night, 443 feet to dead-center that landed high up in the shrubbery that serves as the batter’s eye. Rhys Hoskins dove into an 85-m.p.h. slider immediately after Schwarber’s blast, finally driving McCullers from the game.
“It wasn’t, like, off the corner of the plate but it was 2 and 2 and I understand the realities of the game,” McCullers said. “At that point, I’m trying to eat outs. I’m trying to save our bullpen. I’m not trying to walk anyone.”
McCullers was still in the game at that point because it was only 4-0 and he had found a groove, retiring eight Phillies in a row on an assortment of ground balls and strikeouts. But then, quick as a lightning strike, the home run ball reappeared.
Martín Maldonado and Baker both agreed with McCullers in that they said they did not see any evidence that the Phillies knew what was coming.
“Four out of the five homers they hit were off-speed pitches,” Baker said. “And they hit one fastball that Bohm hit. Now that’s not anything I noticed. Guys are always looking for something, always looking to see if they’re tipping their pitches. We didn’t see anything. Sometimes they just hit, know what I mean?”