The Houston Astros used 20-game winner Dallas Keuchel to win the American League Wild Card Game.
They’ll start 19-game winner Collin McHugh in Game 1 of their AL Division Series against the Royals on Thursday night.
But there’s more than a one-victory difference between the pitchers, which McHugh explained by sharing a joke he recently told Keuchel.
“You win 20 games with a two-and-a-half (ERA),” McHugh said, “and you’re a pretty good pitcher.
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“You win 19 with almost a four, and you’ve got a really good team behind you.”
As McHugh dryly delivered the last word of that sentence Wednesday afternoon, a few laughs emerged from the Kauffman Stadium interview room. But the next point McHugh made spoke to something serious.
“The team’s supported me when I struggled,” he said, “and when I’ve had to hold the line I feel like we’ve been able to.”
That symbiotic trust between McHugh and the Astros goes back to his acquisition following the 2013 season, when Houston, after finishing last in the majors, picked him off waivers. McHugh had been dropped by the Colorado Rockies after a season in which he fell to 0-8 in his major-league career.
Yet Houston saw something in McHugh, which emerged in 2014 as he went 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts and finished fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
“I like Collin just because he’s had to fight for everything he’s achieved,” said Keuchel, who led the AL in victories, innings pitched and fewest walks-and-hits per innings pitched. “Kind of like myself.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, and more. And I think he expects a lot out of himself just like I do, and it’s a good combination.”
This year, McHugh was 19-7 in 32 starts but his ERA rose to 3.89. During a nine-game stretch in May and June, McHugh allowed four or more runs in five starts, going 3-3 with a 6.05 ERA and allowing opposing batters to post an OPS of .889.
He rebounded by winning seven of his next nine starts, all decisions. In September and October, McHugh went 5-0 in six starts, posting a 3.76 ERA in 36 1/3 innings, striking out 35 and walking 10.
“I just made some adjustments. Just kind of refined a couple of times,” he said. “Second time through a lot of these teams, they’re going to make adjustments ... So I did a little more research on each team.”
McHugh has faced the Royals once in his career, on May 27, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium. He was the winning pitcher in a 3-0 Astros victory in which he struck out nine in seven innings, allowing five hits and walking none.
“It’s always comforting to know that you’re not standing on a mound for the first time,” he said.
Three of the Royals nine hitters that day are no longer with the team — Nori Aoki, Billy Butler and Jimmy Paredes — and a fourth, Omar Infante, is likely out for the ALDS because of an oblique injury. In their place are new acquisitions like Kendrys Morales, Ben Zobrist and Alex Rios.
“They’re consistent, they put together tough at-bats. ... they’re aggressive on the bases,” McHugh said. “They put pressure on teams in a lot of different ways.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch chose Scott Kazmir, 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA in 13 starts, to pitch Game 2 on Friday afternoon, while Keuchel, 20-8, 2.48, will start Game 3 on Sunday in Houston.