MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Healthy Keuchel sets strong tone for Astros

Healthy Keuchel sets strong tone for Astros

HOUSTON -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch talked about the chip on his No. 1 starter's shoulder. Dallas Keuchel shrugged when asked about that.

"Not really," he said. "I know what I'm capable of doing when I'm healthy. I know how bad I can be when I'm not healthy."

His new catcher hasn't seen a chip on the shoulder, either. Rather, he has seen things way more impressive.

"When you get behind the scenes, you see him be there at 5 in the morning in Spring Training working out," Brian McCann said. "His preparation is off the charts. You know why he's a Cy Young Award winner. He's incredible."

Correa on Opening Day victory

McCann was speaking in a happy Astros clubhouse moments after a 3-0 victory over the Mariners on Monday night at Minute Maid Park. As Opening Days go, the Astros couldn't have asked for a better one.

George Springer and Carlos Correa homered, and the Astros played nine innings of smothering defense. Best of all, they appear to have gotten a look at the same Dallas Keuchel who won the 2015 American League Cy Young Award.

He pounded the strike zone, lit up Statcast™, kept the ball down and induced 11 groundouts and one flyout on his way to seven shutout innings. He also made two dazzling defensive plays, including the one that ended the seventh inning, his final out of the evening.

"That's what Dallas does," Hinch said. "He keeps the ball on the ground. He misses a few bats. He throws some surprise fastballs inside. He generates soft contact."

Keuchel excels defensively

With a packed house cheering, Keuchel walked back to the dugout after the top of the seventh inning with a feeling that eluded him for a lot of 2016 when he was 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA. If Dallas Keuchel is truly back, the Astros are nicely positioned to win the AL West.

Two seasons ago, they were 23-10 when Keuchel started and 63-66 with anyone else. He was 15-0 at Minute Maid Park.

He was never that guy last season. He pitched through constant pain in his left shoulder. His season ended Aug. 27.

One of the reasons the Astros pursued White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana is they didn't know what they could expect from Keuchel.

After five months of rest and therapy, he stepped back onto a mound in early February and threw without pain. He said he'd been in such discomfort in 2016 that he forgot what it felt like to throw pain free.

"The way I was able to warm up relatively quick and in a normal routine," he said. "It just seemed everything was back to normal and has continued on. It makes you appreciate a lot of things. Not that I didn't appreciate it before, but that you can take the ball and face big league hitters and just compete and have fun."

He needed just 27 pitches to sail through the first three innings. He threw one fewer than that in the fourth inning alone. But he made two huge pitches, getting Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager to take a low fastball for strike three with two runners on base and one out.

Then with the bases loaded and two outs, he got out of the inning when Leonys Martin pounded a fastball into the ground to end the inning.

Keuchel escapes bases-loaded jam

"He's a perfectionist," Hinch said. "He demands a lot out of himself. He doesn't accept mediocrity and doesn't accept less than his best. I think he's stubborn that way, and I love that characteristic.

"At his best, he's got an inner focus during the game that is quiet and burns pretty hot. He doesn't throw a pitch without a purpose. He sets an excellent tone on the day he pitches."

The Astros made a string of nice defensive plays besides the two Keuchel made himself. Per Statcast™, Seattle had four batted balls with a Hit Probability of 50 percent or greater, and all four of them resulted in outs.

Springer made two nice ones, getting outs on Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz on balls that had Hit Probability rates of 69 and 78 percent.

But it was Keuchel who set the tone.

"That's what he does," McCann said. "He pitches to both sides of the plate. It was very rare he missed my glove tonight. He's as good as they come."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.