NEW YORK — In a relatively short period of time, Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel has earned the Yankees Killer™ label, and it is not undeserved. He owns a 1.41 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in six career starts and 44 2/3 innings against New York in the regular season, plus he threw six scoreless innings in the 2015 AL Wild Card Game and seven scoreless innings in 2017 ALCS Game 1.
In those 57 2/3 total innings, Keuchel allowed zero home runs to one of the most fearsome hitting teams in baseball year after the year. Keuchel has crushed the Yankees, time after time after time, and he had every reason to be confident going into Game 5 of the ALCS on Wednesday night.
“To have some boos (before Game 3) getting introduced, that was a nice feel. You get boos against the Evil Empire at the home turf, it makes you feel good just because you’re doing your job correctly,” said Keuchel on Tuesday. “Obviously my job is to win for the Astros.”
Wednesday night, the Yankees finally cracked the Keuchel code. A double by Starlin Castro and a single by Greg Bird, both with two outs, got the Yankees on the board in the second inning. Aaron Judge yanked a doubled down the line in the third inning for another run. Then, in the fifth, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius strung together two-out singles for two more runs and a 4-0 lead. .
And, for the first time in career, Keuchel heard cheers in Yankee Stadium as he walked off the mound. Mock cheers, of course.
“Any time you’re able to score off a starter early, especially someone you haven’t scored off of at all, I think it does feel bigger, said Yankees manager Joe Girardi after Game 5. “I give these guys a lot of credit. They fought and were able to score off them tonight.”
Keuchel finished Game 5 having allowed four runs on seven hits and one walk in 4 2/3 innings. It was the first time in his career he allowed more than three runs to the Yankees. It was also the first time he threw fewer than six innings in a start against New York, and only the second time he threw fewer than seven innings.
The difference between the Yankees’ approach in Games 1 and 5 is crystal clear: They made Keuchel get the ball up. That’s one of those old-school baseball idioms that doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. How can a hitter make a pitcher get the ball up? The pitcher is going to throw the ball wherever he wants to throw the ball, right? Right.
“We looked middle of the plate,” said Todd Frazier. “Sometimes you can cut it in half and look inside or outside. When you look at the middle of the plate against him — because his ball moves so much, the cutter is come in to righties, the two-seam fastball is going to go away. If you’re thinking middle, that cutter that kind of stays out over, which we hit very well today, we have better opportunities to get guys in. Same thing with the two-seamer. If it’s not right down the plate, it’s most likely going to be a ball.”
The Yankees proverbially made Keuchel get the ball by looking middle and by not chasing down below the zone. Keuchel is an artist on the mound. Everything he throws is painted at the bottom of the zone. In Game 1, the Yankees chased those pitches down below the knees for strikeouts and weak contact. In Game 5, they didn’t. Check out the pitch location plots:
By my count, Keuchel recorded eight strikeouts and three ground outs on pitches below the strike zone in Game 1. In Game 5, he recorded only three strikeouts on pitches in that location. Not one ground out. The Yankees refused to chase again, either because they adjusted their approach or because Keuchel’s pitches weren’t as tempting, or both.
“He’s obviously really good. He moves the ball around, he knows what he’s doing when he’s moving it,” Bird said. “You’ve got to stay disciplined but you’ve got to be aggressive — it kind of contradicts each other — you’ve got to get him on the plate, and when he does, you’ve got to make it hurt. I feel like we definitely handled him well.”
“It was more about them hitting good pitches,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “He didn’t pitch that poorly by any means. He made some pitches that got hit when they had some big opportunities.”
After back-to-back tough losses in Games 3 and 4, the Astros had every reason in the world to be confident in Keuchel in Game 5. He’s dominated the Yankees throughout his career and, more than anything, the guy is just a great pitcher. We get so caught up in pitcher vs. batter splits sometimes that it can be easy to forget the obvious. Keuchel is great against most teams, not just the Yankees.
Mathematically, it’s impossible for the Yankees to win the ALCS without beating Keuchel or Justin Verlander at least once. In Game 5, they picked up that win, and now they’re one win away from a trip to the World Series. The Yankees finally solved Keuchel for at least one night, and it happened at exactly the right time.