For six innings, Lance McCullers Jr. defied expectations. The Houston Astros opted for McCullers to start Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, almost a pick-em situation between the good-but-not-amazing back-end of their starting rotation. And McCullers gave the Astros everything they could have wanted.
Six complete innings, just one run allowed and two hits. He left the game with a 4-1 lead after facing one batter in the seventh.
If you told the Astros before the game, that’s what they’d get out of a pitcher who hadn’t started in 17 days and who’d only pitched out of the bullpen once in that time, they’d take it 100 times out of 100.
If the eighth inning hadn’t have happened — if the Yankees didn’t stage an unreal comeback, win Game 4 by the score of 6-4 and even the ALCS at two on Tuesday night — the baseball world would be gushing about McCullers and his fantastic performance.
Instead, we’re talking about how the Astros blew it. About the two-run seventh, the four-run eighth. About how the next three Astros relievers each gave up a run and how Houston’s bullpen ERA in the postseason ballooned to 6.20.
It all begs one question: Did the Astros blow it by pulling McCullers?
Hindsight is 20/20 and the postseason is a breeding ground for second-guessing, but Houston will be filled by Astros fans wondering if manager A.J. Hinch bought too much into the playoffs-strategy-du-jour — going quickly to the bullpen. It’s a common tactic in 2017, but not one that Hinch has employed as much as a few of his peers.
Managers these days are using their bullpens hoping their relievers are tickets to the postseason promised land. Everybody wants to be the 2016 Indians, right? But the results in 2017 have been a mixed bag. The McCullers decision wasn’t just about getting to the bullpen, but also anticipating if McCullers might get in trouble against a Yankees lineup that hit the most homers in baseball this year.
When McCullers was pulled, he had just given up his second hit of the night, a mammoth solo homer to Aaron Judge. But he was only at 81 pitches. There are always two sides to these decisions:
• The Yankees hadn’t been able to get much going against McCullers and he was well-rested, having pitched only three innings in October before Tuesday night.
•But McCullers was starting his third time through the lineup, which is often when starters, even the great ones, lose their luster. Splits tell us that McCullers tends to struggle after 75 pitches. Opposing batters hit .368 against McCullers after pitch No. 76 this season, compared to .144 for pitches 26-50 and .302 for pitches 51-75. Would the Yankees finally get to him?
Hinch found himself in a similar situation as many of the playoff peers: You might get burned if you do, you might get burned if you don’t and you’re guaranteed to get second-guessed either way.
After the game, Hinch stood by his decision to bring in reliever Chris Devenski, especially with Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird looming for the Yankees.
“That spot right there with the lefties, Chris Devenski is really good against left-handed hitters,” Hinch said. “At the beginning of the game we definitely had plans for Devo getting that pocket. I think coming in, Gregorius falling behind him and then getting the base hit set up the whole inning, and then the walk to Bird. Bird’s a good hitter, he laid off a couple of tough change-ups. We just didn’t get the results we wanted; we had the matchup we wanted.”
But what else is Hinch going to say? That he should have stayed with McCullers? That he doesn’t have complete faith in his bullpen? (One doesn’t mean the other, mind you). McCullers, for what it’s worth, said he was prepared to keep pitching and had faith in his bullpen. But what else is he going to say?
The Astros got into a situation they wanted: Six strong innings from McCullers and a 4-0 lead going into the seventh. They got the bullpen matchups they preferred. And it didn’t still work out.
Hindsight will tell you maybe Astros should have stuck with McCullers. And hindsight is right sometimes. But baseball’s postseason will tell you it’s tough to completely count anything or anyone — whether it’s your ace, your preferred matchup or a split you think you can use to your advantage.
Sometimes baseball just punches you in the face. Like it did to the Astros.
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