Lance McCullers Jr. learned late in Game 3 that he would start Game 4 against the Yankees, ending a week of uncertainty about exactly what his role would be in the American League Championship Series. Even before he got that official word, he knew for certain that the setting would be an intense challenge — and an absolute blast.
“ALCS in New York,” the All-Star pitcher said. “It’s kind of what you dream of growing up, right?”
He has the responsibility of trying to help the Astros erase the taste of an 8-1 drubbing Monday night and restoring his team’s momentum, which is quite a leap for someone who began the day thinking he might be a relief pitcher in Game 3 and the rest of the series.
“No one is shying away from the magnitude of the situation,” McCullers said late Monday, “but I’m up for the challenge.”
The thinking behind giving him the start, manager A.J. Hinch said, was simple: “He’s really good.”
But McCullers has not been healthy for much of the second half. He was limited by what the team said was arm fatigue, among other physical issues. So it was not a cinch that he would get the ball in such a big spot. Hinch also had considered Brad Peacock, who instead will be in the bullpen.
Hinch admitted that McCullers’ inactivity represents “the unknown.” Then he added, “He’s a really good pitcher. He’s got really electrifying stuff, some of the best stuff in the big leagues . . . Big-time breaking ball, the whole league knows it. He’s got a really good fastball. He had a really good bullpen in between his last outing and the next outing, tomorrow.”
McCullers’ father, Lance Sr., 53, pitched for the Yankees in 1989 and 1990.
The younger McCullers’ outlook, about this being a dream scenario, was more or less the way the whole Astros team was looking at the visit to play a team that had the best home record in the American League and is unbeaten in four postseason home games. Yankee Stadium figures to be hugely daunting and appealing.
“This is obviously a very historical place to play. The pinstripes. You know who you’re playing over there,” said Astros centerfielder George Springer, who grew up in New Britain, Connecticut (as a Red Sox fan) and attended the University of Connecticut. “The crowd expects them to win. They’re into the game. They live and die with every pitch. It makes it a tough place to play for other teams but it’s also a great place to play and see why they are who they are.”
It is an open question whether this Yankee Stadium is as intimidating as the previous one. Joe Girardi said it sure was loud, helpfully so, when the Yankees rallied back after giving up three first-inning runs in the wild-card game against the Twins. After Game 3 Monday, he again cited the fans’ influence on the Yankees.
There is no debating that everything about playing in New York is simply different from anywhere else in the sport.
“You have to basically focus on playing the game and understanding the platform is huge,” said Carlos Beltran of the Astros, who flourished here as both a Met and a Yankee. “But it’s also great because if you care about the game, there’s no better place to play baseball than New York. The attention we get as a ballplayer is amazing. When you do well, it’s recognized worldwide. When you do bad, it’s also recognized worldwide.
“New York is not for everybody. People could excel in a city like this one, but also, I’ve seen it before, I’ve seen good players come to New York and their careers have gone downhill,” Beltran said. “So you have to have a clear mind in what you want to do. And be passionate.”
The Astros, leading 2-0 in the series after the games in Houston, were more certain about their passion level than their rotation.
Hinch said before Game 3, “I don’t want to look back, whether things work out for us or things end in tears, that we didn’t enjoy this moment. Why not be happy and seize the moment? Don’t get me wrong, these are very tense moments. But if you can’t enjoy today, why are we doing this?”
Notes & quotes: In the first two ALCS games, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel were 10-for-20. All other Astros were 1-for-38. In Game 3, Altuve Correa and Gurriel went 1-for-12. All other Astros now are 4-for-57.