PHILADELPHIA — Lance McCullers Jr. had the ball to begin the most important day in Astros history, throwing the first pitch of the decisive Game 7 in the 2017 World Series. The right-hander will return to the Fall Classic stage when he starts Game 3 of the World Series on Monday night in Philadelphia.

The best-of-seven series against the Phillies is tied, 1-1, after the Astros beat the Phillies, 5-2, on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.

“This is a very big game,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I figure he can keep the ball in the ballpark pretty good with his sinker and his slider. He holds runners on pretty good; [the Phillies] generally try to run a lot. I think he deserves it.”

McCullers will be making his third start of the 2022 playoffs, having pitched in clinching games in the American League Division Series and the AL Championship Series. He threw six scoreless innings in the Astros’ 18-inning win over Seattle in Game 3 of the ALDS and gave up four runs (three earned) on eight hits and one walk over five innings in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees in New York.

“I’m really excited,” McCullers said. “They came in here and did what they were supposed to, and they got the split 1-1, so it’s going to be up to us to go into their park and play three on the road and play good baseball. But [I’m] really looking forward to experiencing the crowd. I’ve heard a lot about it. So I’ve been pretty open. I’m a really big fan of the game, and I think it will be a great moment. I’m looking forward to trying to pitch us to a win.”

McCullers is one of the best big-game pitchers in Astros history, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP in 18 career games (11 starts) in the postseason. His 11 playoff starts and 68 1/3 innings are second-most in franchise history behind Justin Verlander (17 playoff starts, 104 1/3 innings).

“Who has more experience on this team than him and J.V.?” Baker said. “Lance has been our big game guy.”

Across McCullers’ two previous World Series starts, both in 2017, he’s given up three runs, seven hits, four walks and hit four batters in 7 2/3 innings. He also drove in a run in Game 7 in ‘17 while pitching just 2 1/3 innings at Dodger Stadium.

“He’s been there; he’s done that. He’s experienced it,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said. “He had the ball in Game 7 against the Dodgers in 2017. He was our ace going into the postseason last year. He’s experienced the emotions that come along with pitching in big games. He can handle that emotion and do well.”

McCullers spent most of this past season rehabbing from a flexor tendon strain sustained during the 2021 postseason, going 4-2 with a 2.27 ERA in eight regular-season starts. Miller said that the Astros “didn’t really know what to expect” from McCullers coming into the season, but they have seen him increase the volume and pitch quality over the past several months.

“We want him out there,” Miller said. “We’re excited to see him go tomorrow. He’s got an elite curveball/slider combination with a sinker and changeup to boot. He’ll be ready to rise to the occasion.”

McCullers faced the Phillies in his final regular-season start on Oct. 3, holding them to one run on six hits and one walk over six innings. He surrendered a leadoff homer to Kyle Schwarber and wound up suffering the loss because the Astros were shut out by the Phillies, 3-0, as Philadelphia clinched the final NL Wild Card spot.

“They have guys really from the jump, with Schwarber all the way down until at least the middle of that lineup, that hit for average and hit for power,” McCullers said. “And then you have guys at the bottom who, you saw the at-bat that [Bryson] Stott had tonight [in Game 2]. That was one of the most impressive at-bats I’ve seen in a while. And when they get on, they can run, and then they put the ball in play. So they’re a really complete team. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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