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Tampa’s Lance McCullers ascends to sports’ ultimate stage

By Martin Fennelly
FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2017, file photo, Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of Game 3 of baseball's World Series in Houston. McCullers will start Game 7 Wednesday, Nov. 1 against Dodgers right-hander Yu Darvish in the biggest game in Astros history. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

He took the mound at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night with no tomorrow in sight. It was Game 7 of the World Series for the Astros against the Dodgers. Tampa’s Lance McCullers got the start for Houston.

It was a stage unlike almost any other: starting pitcher in a World Series Game 7. It was a stage all its own. McCullers, 24, was on it, armed with a curveball that befuddles hitters and a drive that he partially got from his father, Lance Sr., a former big-league reliever whose career was cut short by shoulder problems.

Lance Sr. never threw in a postseason, let alone the Series. He was watching Wednesday night.

Lance McCullers’ friend Jose Fernandez never threw in the Series, either. Fernandez, who played at Alonso High while McCullers threw for Jesuit, died in September 2016 in a boat crash on a Miami jetty, all that wondrous talent gone. Fernandez was legally drunk, with cocaine in his system, and was eventually ruled to have been driving the boat that took three lives on those rocks. Fernandez and McCullers always talked about their dreams of making the big leagues, of facing each other, and of just this kind of stage.

McCullers took the mound with all hands on deck for both teams’ pitching staffs, in a game that was not over at press time. But the right-hander got it started for the Astros.

Starting pitcher in Game 7 of a World Series. No one from Tampa Bay had ever done that.

McCullers has been great for Houston this postseason. He pitched six innings of two-hit ball against the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series before trouble. He closed out that series in Game 7, with four shutout innings of relief, his last 24 pitches nothing but curveballs. He won Game 3 of the World Series in Houston. He entered Wednesday with a 2.95 ERA in four postseason appearances.

There have been a lot of major-leaguers from around here who’ve been in a World Series Game 7. Dwight Gooden was in one with the Mets. Wade Boggs was in one with the Red Sox. Fred McGriff was in two with the Braves. Tino Martinez was in one with the Yankees. Gary Sheffield was in one the Marlins. Luis Gonzalez won the 2001 Series for the Diamondbacks with a walkoff bloop hit off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in Game 7 in Arizona.

There have been so many Series moments for locals. Lou Piniella won two World Series as a Yankees player and one as a Reds manager. Tony La Russa won three Series as a manager, one with Oakland and two with St. Louis. Steve Garvey won a Series playing with the Dodgers. Pat Borders of Lake Wales was World Series MVP with the Blue Jays in 1992. The moments go on and on.

There have been athletes from our area who have played in Super Bowls and Final Fours and college championship games. There are athletes who’ve won Olympic gold medals.

And there was Wednesday night.

Lance McCullers climbed the hill. He was in a place where so few people had been. He tried to help win a world championship. He was born after his father left the game in 1992. Lance Sr. never made it to the biggest show. His son did. Jose Fernandez never made it. His friend did.

This was a wonderful World Series. That remarkable Game 2. That unforgettable Game 5. It was a Series destined to go the distance.

It did.

And Lance McCullers started it.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.