HOUSTON – As midnight approached on Aug. 31 and Justin Verlander weighed whether to accept a trade to the Houston Astros, he received a phone call from Dallas Keuchel. The Astros ace wanted to give Verlander that last push toward saying yes, and though the call was quick, he punctuated it with words Verlander wouldn’t soon forget: “You won’t regret this.”
Keuchel made sure of it Friday.
The left-hander, who has confounded the New York Yankees throughout his career, flummoxed them yet again in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, throwing seven shutout innings in a 2-1 victory at Minute Maid Park.
After missing nearly two months in the middle of the season with a neck injury, Keuchel lacked his early-season dominance down the stretch. He righted himself before the playoffs, carved up the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 of the division series and one-upped himself in front of 43,116.
“We hand him the ball and the entire room knows we have a chance to win,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “So we’re well aware he’s had success against the Yankees, we’re very confident in this ballpark. He’s pitched extraordinarily.”
Relying mainly on his heavy sinker, Keuchel struck out at least one Yankee in each of his seven innings and reached double-digit strikeouts for the first time since 2015, when he won the AL Cy Young. The Yankees managed just four hits against him, and closer Ken Giles came on for a five-out save, though not before giving up a solo home run with two outs in the ninth to Greg Bird. He struck out pinch hitter Jacoby Ellsbury – the Yankees’ 14th strikeout on the night – to end the game.
Runs were scarce in the game that still stretched beyond the three-hour mark. Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka came off two of his best starts of the season, and while his devastating split-finger fastball didn’t accompany him to Houston, he still held a dangerous Astros lineup relatively in check. The Astros didn’t muster a hit until Jose Altuve hustled out an infield single in the fourth inning. He stole second and scored on a Carlos Correa single to left. Correa moved to second on a groundout and came home as Yuli Gurriel shot a single into center.
And that was it. One inning with a crooked number and 15 zeroes – eight in the Yankees’ scoring column. In their first ALCS appearance since 2012, when the Detroit Tigers swept them, the Yankees’ bats disappeared. Whatever goodwill they’d carried over from their comeback against the Cleveland Indians in the division series floated away amid a cascade of Keuchel sinkers.
“There’s an artistry to how he pitches,” Hinch said, and in an era of high-velocity four-seam fastballs, it’s true. Keuchel is a throwback, a sinkerballer who lives to get groundouts. When his stuff is sharp, the strikeouts join, too, and that’s when he’s truly great – the kind of pitcher who can lead a team to the World Series.
For that, the Astros need three more wins. They’ll get a crack at one of those Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, and if they win that as well, Keuchel deserves an assist. Why? The starting pitcher will be Justin Verlander.