So, Game 3 for the Astros was decidedly not fun. Plenty of blame to spread around, as Lance McCullers Jr. did not have it on the mound, and the lineup missed a couple of opportunities to make things interesting. There are instances when a larger deficit at the end of the game isn't truly indicative of how a game transpired; take, for example, Game 4 of the 2017 World Series, when the Dodgers won 6-2, as it was initially tied 1-1 heading into the top of the ninth. But the lopsided score of 7-0 in favor of the Phillies was genuinely accurate to how the game unfolded. It felt like a long night was in store following Bryce Harper's two-run shot in the first inning.
One popular topic of discussion following Game 3, at least on Twitter, was the lineup's utter inefficiency in this shutout. Some fans argued that the hypothetical pulling of McCullers Jr. earlier in the game was essentially pointless due to those struggles. After all, you must score at least one run to win a game, and the Astros' bats were relatively lifeless. To them, it didn't matter who was on the mound as long as the hitters weren't doing their jobs. There is a relevant point to it; considering how this series has unfolded through the first three games, Houston's lineup will need more than a run or two to beat these Phillies. I would argue that Yordan Alvarez's struggles since Game 2 of the ALDS loom rather large over this lineup more than anything else.
But that discourse also ignores a manager's responsibility to optimize their team's chances, even when trailing. In the case of Dusty Baker and this World Series, it is electing not to use an effective and well-rested bullpen when the starting pitcher on the mound is struggling, even amid offensive ineptitude. I felt that noted baseball analyst Joe Sheehan expressed it rather succinctly below.
Seeing some pushback…the offense being shut out doesn’t absolve the manager’s errors handling the pitching. Everything counts.— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) November 2, 2022
By the time Baker pulled him from the game, McCullers Jr. had already surrendered seven earned runs, and the game was essentially decided. For a club that has touted incredible pitching depth all year long, it was a massive disappointment to see the Astros fail to utilize arguably their most significant advantage for the second time in this series. There was also the possibility of McCullers Jr. tipping his pitches, which both he and Baker denied in their postgame comments. I think the Phillies did pick up on something, but I am not sure it was due to his higher leg kick speculated online. That said, I can't necessarily pinpoint what the issue was. Perhaps Philadelphia recognized the pitching plan and adjusted accordingly?
Regardless of potential tipping, it still begs the question of the hesitancy behind not utilizing the bullpen when the game was still in reach. While it is certainly possible that the Phillies ambush Houston's relievers and still score at least seven runs, there is also a chance that the bullpen buys enough time for the bats to wake up. Not likely based on how the lineup ultimately performed, but, in theory, a 3-0 or 4-0 deficit is more manageable to climb out of than a 7-0 hole.
I was genuinely impressed by how Baker handled his pitching staff in the first two rounds of the postseason. In Game 1 against Seattle, the veteran manager wasn't afraid to pull Verlander following his implosion and trust his relievers to keep the game close. That decision paid dividends as Alvarez eventually walked off the Mariners to set the tone for the remainder of the series. Game 3 was more of the same as the relievers kept the opposition at bay until Jeremy Peña's heroics in the top of the 18th inning. Those same pitchers had huge moments in the ALCS sweep against the Yankees.
The reversal by Baker in the World Series to trust his starters too much, especially when they're clearly on the ropes, has been disheartening. Compared to how Rob Thomson has utilized his bullpen, especially by using his best arms aggressively, it is clear why his club currently holds the advantage. While not all blame ought to fall on Baker — the players need to perform better — he isn't without fault. The pitching decisions, or lack thereof, in Games 1 and 3 loom large heading into Game 4.