The mound can be the loneliest place on a baseball field at either of two extremes. One is when a pitcher is within the final out of consummating a perfect game. The other is when he’s getting murdered on that hill, in any game, never mind a World Series contest.
Lance McCullers, Jr. actually pitched two and a thirds clean innings in Game Three Tuesday night. It took two two-run innings him to get there, and it took two murderous swings to finish his night in the wrong page of the record book, on the absolute wrong end of a 7-0 Phillies win.
But don’t suggest, as the Fox Sports broadcast team and enough of the Twittersphere did, that McCullers might have been tipping his pitches. The Phillies sat so hard on his breaking balls and waited him out so patiently it seemed impossible to believe the guy who returned from a flexor pronator injury to post a 2.36 ERA since August was as vulnerable as he was in Game Three.
“I got whupped,” McCullers said emphatically postgame. “End of story. We got beat up pretty bad, and I got beat pretty bad. 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 Seven.”
It may not be unreasonable to question whether the Series gets quite that far, after the Phillies—satisfied to split the opening pair in Houston and come home to the raucous sound of their stop sign-shaped playpen—blasted McCullers in three out of the four and a third innings the righthander managed to pitch.
And, hit the 1,000th home run in World Series play since the Series was introduced in 1903 while they were at it.
Bryce Harper, bottom of the first, with Kyle Schwarber aboard (leadoff walk) and two out—saw only one pitch in that plate appearance, a slightly hanging knuckle curve ball. He hung it two thirds of the way up the lower right center field seats. That made for the sixth time this postseason that Harper sent first pitches flying long distance. It also made for him starting his first World Series game ever in front of a home audience with a bang.
Alec Bohm, leading off bottom of the second—He got a little whispering from Harper before he checked in at the plate leading off. Then he got a McCullers sinker to open that didn’t sink quite enough off the middle of the plate and lined it into the left field seats. Series home run number one thousand, since Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Sebring legged an inside-the-park job off Hall of Famer Cy Young in 1903’s Game One.
Brandon Marsh—Two evil-looking strikeouts later, Marsh hit a 2-0 slider high enough above Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker . . . and in and out of a young fan’s glove above the right field wall. An umpires’ review confirmed what Marsh just finished running out: The fan hadn’t crossed the top of the wall when the ball bounded off the wall top and into and out of his glove back onto the field. Home run. Jeffrey Maier remains singular in fan infamy.
The Schwarbinator—After McCullers pitched two three-and-three innings and looked to be settling in well enough, Schwarber came up with Marsh aboard (one-out line single to right) in the bottom of the fifth and detonated a 1-2 changeup far over the center field fence. Into a greenery of Forest of Arbor Vitae trees.
Rhys Hoskins—Immediately following Schwarber’s nuke, Hoskins wrestled McCullers to a 2-2 count, then drove it about five rows into the left field seats. It also drove McCullers out of the game at last, not to mention driving Astros manager Dusty Baker toward the second-guessers’ booth.
“Hitting itself is a contagious thing without the crowd,” said Hoskins postgame. “But, you throw in the crowd and the noise and the cheers, and I think it just makes it more contagious.” And, noisy. If they’d used a decibel meter in Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night, it would have been broken after the game’s first pitch.
That’s when Phillies starter Ranger Suárez threw Jose Altuve an outside sinker that the Astros’ mighty mite lined the other way to right, and Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos ran in hard before catching it as he fell into a slide. “When Castellanos made that play in right field,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, “that was about as loud as I’ve ever heard that stadium.”
“It actually made me think about it,” said Suárez through his interpreter. “If we start like this, then we’re only going to finish even better.” How right he proved to be, even if his five smooth innings pitched turned out to be the footnote to the Phillies’ phlogging.
But why hadn’t Baker gone to his bullpen when the Astros were down by a more manageable four, on a night McCullers didn’t exactly have his A-game? Particularly remembering that the Yankees forced McCullers to battle in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, even if the Yankees didn’t wreak half the Phillies’ Game Three havoc?
Why did Baker let his man stay in long enough to set his own record of surrendering five bombs in a single Series game, enabling the Phillies to be the first in Series history to hit five bombs in five innings of a single game?
“The thought process,” Baker said postgame, “was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings. Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”
Baker brought Ryne Stanek in to stop the fifth inning bleeding and Stanek did his job by striking out the two Phillies he faced to end the inning. Then Baker went to Jose Urquidy, usually a starter but tasked as the long man out of the Astro pen for the postseason.
If the mound itself can be the loneliest place, the second-loneliest might be the long man’s status when his team’s played nine postseason games without need of a bullpen long man. Urquidy was almost the Astro pitching staff’s forgotten man until Tuesday night.
And it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect him to show enough rust when he arrived and went to work, even though Urquidy himself told reporters postgame that he works every day, a little warming up pregame, a lot of mental preparation during, just in case.
Except for inning-opening baserunners he wild pitched to second and third in the bottom of the sixth, though, Urquidy managed somehow to keep the carnage from metastasising the rest of the way. Making Baker look just a little foolish for letting McCullers start to see the Phillie lineup a third time in the fifth despite his two clean preceding innings.
“It was kind of mind-boggling,” Baker said, “because he doesn’t give up homers. He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark . . . What can I say? The line score looks bad, but they were just hitting us.”
“Give those guys credit,” McCullers said.
So what did Harper tell Bohm, before the Phillie third baseman checked in and laid McCullers’s first second-inning pitch to waste? Neither Harper nor Bohm would say when asked. “Nothing,” Bohm said, with a little grin.
“I think anytime you have information, you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,’’ was just about all Harper would say of it. “So anytime I can help my teammates, throughout the whole season we’ve done that.” But helping his teammates also sent Harper yet another place into the record books.
His last plate appearance in the Bank prior to Game Three ended in the opposite-field, mud-drenched two-run homer he hit that ended up sending the Phillies to the Series in the first place. Then he detonated the first pitch he saw in the Bank Tuesday night. Nobody before him finished his LCS work at home with a bomb and started his World Series work at home with a bomb a week later.
“He’s a showman,” Realmuto said. “That’s what he is. There’s no doubt about that. He lives for these moments. He really feeds off this crowd and the emotions that they bring. And he doesn’t ever seem to let us down in those moments.”
Phillie shortstop Bryson Scott could only marvel at the early bombings, the first time five of a team’s first twenty batters ever homered in a single Series game at all, never mind against the same man on the mound.
“Ooh,” Stott began. “Bohm’s was cool. Line drive . . . Schwarber’s, though . . . Well, Rhys’ was cool, too. But Schwarber’s, into the trees . . . Bryce’s was awesome, too . . . But Schwarber’s into the trees . . . Oh, and Marsh’s was cool . . .The tree ball, though.” Based on the Gospel According to Stott, the Schwarbinator went tree for Game Three.
But Bohm hit the record books in a way that nobody else possibly can. One hundred and nineteen years after the Series first. Not the Bryce that’s right. Not the Monster Marsh. Not Rhys’s Pieces. Not the Schwarbinator.
The only thing the Bohmbardier seemed able to say after the game was no, man, we might be built like the ancient Strategic Air Command, but we’re really just the Third Army in disguise. “Guys aren’t trying to go up there and just hit homers. We’re hitters. Guys were working at-bats. Guys are taking singles the other way. And sometimes they make a mistake and we get ‘em.”
Sometimes, says the guy who connected on the first Game Three pitch he saw. I just hope the fan who came up with the Bohmb in the stands was told of the millenial milestone and sends it right to the Hall of Fame. Where it’s displayed behind a tiny plaque engraved, only, “Bohm’s Away!”