Why White Sox lefty Dallas Keuchel could be even better in 2021

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Vinnie Duber
·5 min read
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Why Keuchel could be even better in 2021, playoffs included originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Dallas Keuchel had an excellent 2020 season. He finished with an ERA below 2.00, winding up sixth in the AL Cy Young vote.

But if White Sox fans were happy with what the bearded lefty showed in his first year on the South Side, it sounds like there's reason to believe they could be even happier in Year 2.

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"This is probably the first time in a long while that I've really felt myself," Keuchel said Sunday. "As much as I want to say (2020) was a good year, yeah I can hang my hat on every start doing everything I can, but I can’t say I pitched a full year when it was only two months. ... In baseball you have to play 162.

"But I do draw some good and bad from last year. The bad was missing that start with the back issue. But I did feel myself in certain starts, and the feeling I had during those outings is what I’ve kind of progressed this offseason, (from) when I started throwing until now. I had a base to go off of and I’ve progressed significantly, and that is what is getting me so excited, that I’ve found my rhythm again and found that connection point to where every pitch is there again."

Indeed, it's been a strange stretch for Keuchel. After winning the World Series with the Houston Astros in 2017 and getting back to the ALCS the following year, Keuchel hit free agency ahead of the 2019 campaign and fell victim to baseball's rules requiring teams to surrender draft picks when signing top-tier free agents. He remained unemployed until the summer before spending the back half of the season with the Atlanta Braves. He finally got a multi-year deal from the White Sox the following winter, but then the pandemic struck, shrinking his first year on the South Side.

Keuchel led the American League with 34 starts in 2019. He's made just 30 combined in the two seasons since.

So staring at a normal season, his first in a while, is what has Keuchel excited. He's feeling good, the nagging discomfort in his back that bothered him throughout the 2020 season behind him for now. He's loving the way his pitches are working, even though he's yet to debut them in a Cactus League game. And he's playing for a team with legitimate World Series aspirations, already thinking about how he can deliver when things matter most.

"I'm not trying to push it in spring training. I'm trying to make sure that I'm there in September and October," Keuchel said. "I've never been one to be on pitch counts or innings limits. But if there ever was a time, for myself specifically, I think it would be this year. This is going to be a long season. Hopefully I'm pitching 40 innings in the playoffs and stuff like that, and I want to be there strong at the end."

Keuchel is part of the White Sox trio of aces at the top of the starting rotation. When he makes his first Cactus League appearance Thursday against the Kansas City Royals, he'll settle into his spot between Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn. It's a bit of a late beginning, at least compared to Giolito and Lynn, who have combined to make six starts already this spring. But according to Keuchel, it's nothing new and how he's approached springs past.

What is a little different this time around is what's driving Keuchel. Much like the rest of the White Sox roster, he was left wanting after the team's postseason stay ended after three games last fall. But Keuchel's feeling some of the responsibility, not happy with his effort in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series against the Oakland Athletics, the first of back-to-back defeats after Giolito spotted the White Sox a 1-0 series edge with his brilliant outing in Game 1.

Keuchel gave up five runs, three of them earned, in 3.1 innings in Game 2. In 2019 with the Braves, Keuchel gave up three runs in 3.1 innings in his second of two postseason starts.

So what's motivating him right now? Avoiding those kinds of starts upon his next trip to October, which he's confident will be this fall with the White Sox.

"The driving factor for me right now is the fact that my last couple of playoff starts have not been very good," he said. "I want to be one of the guys this team counts on to get it done. And not getting it done last year in Game 2 has really left a sour taste in my mouth.

"I'm not goal oriented, I don't have goals for myself. I just want to be healthy and out there. But if I had something to look forward to, it would be getting back on the wagon and asserting myself in the playoffs.

"Focus right now is solely on making myself the best version of myself and hopefully helping this team win a championship or two."

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