Late on the night of July 12, as he checked into a luxury hotel in downtown Cincinnati, Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel found a handwritten note waiting for him along with his room keys. The author was Ned Yost.
Yost would manage Keuchel for the next two days at the All-Star Game. He wanted to inform the hirsute southpaw he would start the Midsummer Classic. Yost had spent weeks preparing to run the American League club, and when Chicago’s Chris Sale became unavailable, Yost turned to Keuchel.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Keuchel said.
Keuchel threw two scoreless innings for Yost as the players from the junior circuit secured home-field advantage for the World Series. During their time together, the duo developed mutual admiration.
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“Ned was awesome,” Keuchel said.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Yost said. “Got a really cool beard.”
The Royals intend to send a different sort of message to Keuchel on Sunday. With Edinson Volquez on the mound in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, the team plans to deliver Keuchel’s first loss this season at Minute Maid Park and capture a 2-1 lead in this five-game series.
“I think we’re ready,” Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. “It’s going to be a challenge. But we understand if we want to advance, we want to move on, we’ve got to beat somebody’s ace.”
The Royals avoided Keuchel in the first two games of this series because Houston required Keuchel to win the Wild Card Game. Pitching on three days’ rest, Keuchel silenced The Bronx in six scoreless innings against the Yankees. His style invites comparisons to another New York legend — Yost says Keuchel reminds him of another left-handed bulldog, Andy Pettitte.
Like Pettitte, Keuchel relies upon a fastball clocked in the upper 80s. He spins hard cutters and softer sliders. His goal is soft contact and brief at-bats, and for the last two seasons, few have been better at this pursuit.
Keuchel finished the regular season as the favorite to win the American League Cy Young award. He led the AL in wins (20), walks-plus-hits per nine (1.017) and innings (232). He ranked second in ERA (2.48), hits per nine innings (7.177) and home runs per nine (0.660).
“He doesn’t miss his spots,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “He doesn’t miss out over the plate. He’s a guy you’ve got to really stay patient with in your zone.”
The setting may aid him on Sunday. At home, Keuchel posted a 15-0 record with a 1.46 ERA. He suppressed opposing batters to the tune of a .474 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
The Royals were one of Keuchel’s 15 home victims. He scattered seven hits during eight scoreless innings on June 30. A month later, the Royals hung five runs on Keuchel and handed him a loss at Kauffman Stadium. Yost could not discern a reason for Keuchel’s dominance in Houston.
“He’s just good,” Yost said. “I mean, he’s just good.”
The Astros lack interest in releasing any proprietary information, especially on the eve of a series-tilting contest. But both Keuchel and Houston manager A.J. Hinch expressed bewilderment at the situation. Keuchel suggested the growing crowds aided him. Hinch cited several factors without revealing much.
“It’s hard to put into words because it takes a long time,” Hinch said. “It takes a lot of good defense, it takes some good hitting. Fifteen wins on a season is remarkable. There aren’t that many guys in the league that get 15 wins. He got them all at home.”
Minute Maid Park does not favor pitchers — the Crawford Boxes form a short porch in left-field, begging right-handed hitters to pull — but Keuchel’s ability to keep the baseball out of the air aids his cause. Keuchel induced ground balls 61.7 percent of the time when batters put the ball in play, which ranked second in the majors. During the last two seasons, he leads all qualified starters in ground-ball rate.
“We know what he’s featuring: that freaking, down-and-away two-seamer,” Cain said. “He hits his spots really well. He nibbles. He’ll go off just enough to make you chase it and ground out.”
Keuchel’s style creates a curious dynamic for Sunday. The Royals struck out less than any other team, but also finished 29th in walks. They do not idle at the plate. Keuchel experienced the polarity of the Royals’ approach in his two outings against them.
At Minute Maid Park, Keuchel struck out seven and felt like “they were kind of sitting back a little bit more than they usually do.” Less than a month later, the Royals ambushed him for four runs in the first inning. The team completed the damage in an inning that lasted only 18 pitches.
“That really shows you what they’re capable of doing in such a short span,” Keuchel said.
A comeback victory in Game 2 affords the Royals the opportunity to relax heading into Game 3. The outcome will be crucial, but it will not decide the series.
Facing Keuchel, inside a park where he has yet to lose in 2015, Yost appreciates the distinction.
“I know how tough a competitor he is,” Yost said. “I know how well he can execute pitches. And I would much rather go into this game against him tomorrow tied, 1-1, than to be down, 0-2.”