Keuchel returns to big stage for Opening Day

Ace lefty ready to lead Astros at site of AL Wild Card win

Keuchel returns to big stage for Opening Day

HOUSTON -- Pitching against the Yankees before a big crowd at Yankee Stadium is a big assignment for Astros starter Dallas Keuchel. At least he can draw on some recent experience to help him through it.

When Keuchel, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, gets the ball in Tuesday's Opening Day game against the Yankees (12:05 p.m. CT) -- after inclement weather postponed Monday's originally scheduled opener -- he'll be returning to the scene where he pitched the pinnacle game of his career in throwing six scoreless innings to beat the Yankees in last year's AL Wild Card Game.

"I'm going to be nervous a little bit, but at the same time, it's a good nervous because I'm having fun," he said. "It's going to be a great stage to pitch on."

Coming off a terrific season in which he went 20-8 with three complete games and a 2.48 ERA in 33 starts, the bearded lefty is back to lead the Astros' pitching staff in 2016 on its quest to return to the postseason for the second year in a row.

In addition to the Cy Young, he won his second Gold Glove Award, was named the Astros' Pitcher of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and took home the Warren Spahn Award as baseball's top left-hander.

So how does he plan to improve?

"I don't necessarily see it as getting better," he said. "It's a produce-or-get-out league, and that's my main goal, is to stay healthy and be healthy on Opening Day, because if I'm not on the field, then obviously I'm not going to help the team out. So I do everything I possibly can to get my body healthy each and every year. Just go out and have fun."

As far as pitching goes, Keuchel, a spirited competitor and perfectionist, said location will be the key to build on last year's success. He thrives on pinpoint control and getting weak contract and dribblers to the infield.

"That's always the key: location, location, location," he said. "It's always going to be that way until my career is over. I've worked with getting better location on all four pitches, trying a backdoor cutter a little bit. David Price and a few other lefties kind of have gotten real good at that the last couple of years."

Leadership is now something Keuchel is coming to embrace. It's not like he has a choice, either. As the longest tenured current pitcher, a Cy Young winner and staff ace, the young pitchers on the staff turn to Keuchel. He's the leader of a team many expect to go deep into October, and it all starts Tuesday.

"That's the fun part," he said. "Going into my fourth full year, I'm the longest tenured Astro pitcher, but it's something that I take great pride in and I'm very humbled by it, because I try to do everything the right way and go about my business the right way and work hard for everything. If a couple of guys can see that, do their own hard work and figure themselves out, I think I'm doing my job properly."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.