Keuchel de­vel­ops into core As­tro

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com

The rise of the Hous­ton Astros to the top of the Amer­i­can League West has been doc­u­mented as a to-hell-and-back jour­ney in which 100-loss sea­sons yielded high draft picks, in which best-in-thegame prospects such as short­stop Car­los Cor­rea and out­fielder Ge­orge Springer are ar­riv­ing to fit in among pro­duc­tive vet­er­ans such as sec­ond base­man Jose Al­tuve and an ex­pertly as­sem­bled bullpen.

In­ter­nally, such de­vel­op­ment has been ex­pected by Gen­eral Man­ager Jeff Luh­now and his staff. But to get to this point this fast— just a sea­son and a half re­moved from a year in which they lost 111 games — the Astros had to have some un­ex­pected good for­tune, too.

En­ter Dal­las Keuchel, sev­enth-round draft choice in 2009, owner of a 5.20 ERA in his first two ma­jor league sea­sons — and con­tender to be the Amer­i­can League start­ing pitcher in next month’s All-Star Game.

“I don’t think any of us could hon­estly say we would have pre­dicted this de­vel­op­ment from the be­gin­ning of last year un­til now,” Luh­now said late last month. “But the credit goes to Dal­las. He’s made him­self into a pitcher who can dom­i­nate.”

Thurs­day night, in his 16th start of the sea­son, Keuchel al­lowed six sin­gles in a 4-0 shutout of the New York Yan­kees in which he walked one and struck out 12. The out­ing low­ered his ERA to 2.17 — which trails only Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer (2.01) and Oak­land’s Sonny Gray (2.09) in the Amer­i­can League. His third com­plete game and sec­ond shutout gave him 1161/ in­nings pitched in his 16 starts, most in the ma­jors, and his walks-and-hits per in­ning pitched dropped to 0.963, just a tick be­hind Archer for the best num­ber in the AL.

“He doesn’t want to come out of the game,” vet­eran re­liever Pat Neshek said. “I think that’s my fa­vorite char­ac­ter­is­tic about him. He wants that ball. He doesn’t want any­body to come in. His goal is to try to pitch a com­plete game un­der 100 pitches. That’s his goal.”

His com­plete games this year have been of 98 (al­beit of the eight-in­ning va­ri­ety in a loss at Bal­ti­more), 113 and 116 pitches, and he is re­mark­ably ef­fi­cient. Only two pitch­ers in all of base­ball av­er­age fewer than his 14.6 pitches per in­ning. And while last year, in es­tab­lish­ing him­self as a po­ten­tial front-of-the-ro­ta­tion piece by post­ing a 2.93 ERA in 200 in­nings, he used his slider as his out pitch, this year he’s mixed in a change-up as an out pitch. But it starts, he said, with a fast­ball that is scarcely over­pow­er­ing.

“I know some of the an­a­lyt­ics guys were preach­ing last year about how well I was hit­ting down and away and then in­side as well with my fast­ball,” Keuchel said. “And I think a lot of that has to do with the feel that I have in the last year and a half. Pitch­ing’s all about feel. The bet­ter feel you have, the bet­ter lo­ca­tion you’re go­ing to put on the ball, and so on.”

Feel can be elu­sive. Keuchel’s, this year, has been con­sis­tent. In 11 of his 16 starts, he has al­lowed two or fewer earned runs. He leads the AL by al­low­ing only 6.3 hits per nine in­nings, leav­ing op­po­nents with a best-in-the-AL .193 bat­ting av­er­age and a .515 on-base-plus-slug­ging per­cent­age. “I have guys that, in the bat­ter’s box, tell me how un­com­fort­able of an at-bat he is be­cause there’s move­ment on ev­ery­thing,” Astros catcher Jason Cas­tro said. “He’s had re­ally good stuff ever since he came up. It’s just the men­tal­ity and the way he goes about his game plan and has kind of evolved and got him to where he is now.”

That kind of mir­rors the rise of the Astros as a whole. Keuchel be­lieves, had he been with another or­ga­ni­za­tion, he might not have been able to learn at the ma­jor league level as he did in 2012 and 2013. What all of base­ball is see­ing — or will al­most cer­tainly see at some point in the All-Star Game, even if it’s not in the first in­ning — is ap­proach­ing a fin­ished prod­uct.

“I’ve played with some great guys — Jo­han San­tana, Adam Wain­wright,” said the well-trav­eled Neshek, in his first year in Hous­ton. “He re­minds me of what San­tana was do­ing in his prime.”

There are ques­tions about the Astros’ ro­ta­tion over the course of the sum­mer. Mark Ap­pel, the first over­all pick in the 2012 draft, re­mains in the mi­nors, and only Collin McHugh has joined Keuchel and made each of his turns thus far— and McHugh has done so with a 4.80 ERA. But what Keuchel has done has given the Astros an area about which they don’t have to worry or watch de­velop. He’s here, and he’s stay­ing.

“We couldn’t have asked any more of him,” Luh­now said. “He’s one of the guys we gave an op­por­tu­nity when times were tough, and so far it has worked out bet­ter than we could have hoped.”

BOB LEVEY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dal­las Keuchel is third in the AL with a 2.17 ERA. “The bet­ter feel you have, the bet­ter lo­ca­tion you’re go­ing to put on the ball, and so on,” he said.

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