MLB

Dallas Keuchel breathes deep before crucial Game 5 start

NEW YORK — Before every start he makes for the Houston Astros, in those precious seconds prior to throwing his first pitch, Dallas Keuchel steps off the mound, gazes around the ballpark, takes a deep breath and slowly exhales.

Keuchel did it Friday night before Game 1 of this American League Championship Series. He did it in 2015 before the winner-take-all wild-card playoff game at Yankee Stadium. He has done it ever since his father advised him to do it during his major league debut on June 17, 2012, against the Texas Rangers.

“I was really nervous but prepared,” Keuchel recalled Tuesday, “and my dad just told me to take a deep breath before I threw that first pitch and just kind of savor the moment because you’re never going to have a first pitch ever again in your career as a major leaguer.”

Keuchel is about to experience another big moment here Wednesday. Shortly after 5:08 p.m. ET, with fans still streaming to their seats, he will take the mound in the bottom of the first inning, stare in at New York Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner and try to prevent the Astros from reaching the brink of elimination in Game 5 of an ALCS that has taken a turn for the worse.

The Astros insist they like their chances. Even after Tuesday night, when their fire-starting bullpen allowed four runs in the eighth inning of a 6-4 loss that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, they said all the right things. They claimed that the ALCS is still in their hands. They looked forward to going back to the comforts of Houston for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7. They vowed they weren’t shaken by the Bronx bedlam that had just occurred.

But after blowing a four-run lead in a postseason game for only the third time in franchise history at a time when they were nine outs from being on the verge of the World Series, Keuchel’s presence on the Yankee Stadium mound is the one reason they have to be truly optimistic.

Keuchel is an honest-to-goodness Yankee slayer. In six career regular-season starts against them, the 29-year-old lefty has posted a 1.41 ERA and a 45-6 ratio of strikeouts to walks. He’s tougher on them in the postseason. Keuchel shut out the Yanks for six innings in the 2015 wild-card game and struck out 10 batters in seven scoreless innings of Game 1 of the ALCS four nights ago in Houston.

Players on the Yankees’ ALCS roster are 19-for-103 (.184) with four doubles and two home runs against Keuchel. And after throwing only one changeup in Game 1 because of the success he had with his two-seamer and slider, he still has that pitch in his back pocket for Game 5.

“Dallas has been great for us all year long,” Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran said. “And [Game 6 starter Justin] Verlander also has been great for us. We’re happy to have those two guys lined up. We’re confident.”

Said manager A.J. Hinch: “Dallas Keuchel, he’s pretty good at getting deep in the game. We’ll hand the ball to this bullpen with the lead feeling good about it.”

Here’s the thing: Starting pitching hasn’t been the problem. Keuchel and Verlander were lights-out, as usual, in the series’ first two games, but the Astros’ vaunted offense supported them with only four runs. Houston didn’t score until the ninth inning of Game 3, and although right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. offered six shutout innings in Game 4, the bullpen imploded and the offense mustered only one big hit, a three-run double by Yuli Gurriel.

The Astros figure Keuchel will do his part, but if the offense and the bullpen don’t come around, he will need to be almost perfect.

“[The stakes] are extremely high,” Keuchel said. “The wild-card game obviously was a win-or-go-home, so that presented a different challenge. But just being here at Yankee Stadium, there’s different circumstances. You had the lead [2-0 in the series]. You’re tied 2-2 when I take the ball. It’s all on you.”

Keuchel is a finesse pitcher, a sinkerballer whose two-seamer hardly ever scrapes 90 mph. But he features his own brand of chin music, a long, bushy beard straight out of the style guide of fellow Houston professional athlete James Harden.

In New York, Keuchel can’t hide behind the beard. He said he “usually always” gets recognized in the team hotel or on the street, and because he routinely stymies the Yankees, “people are always going to have choice words for you.”

Good luck riling Keuchel, though. Getting heckled in the visiting bullpen while he warms up for a start is something Cool Hand Keuchel describes as “one of the joys” of his job.

“They’ve had some beverages, usually there’s a funnel cake or like a hot dog, which smells really good,” he said. “Just warming up knowing that you’re going to compete, you’re going to do your job is one of the joys. That’s the biggest joy, right before the first pitch, taking it all in, appreciating everybody cheering, booing, eating, drinking and just having a good time.

“When I look back at each season, I appreciate the opportunity that I’ve had, the special moments in the season. And this, by far, is the most special moment because we’re two wins away from the World Series, yet it’s a very long ways away.”

Keuchel can bring the Astros closer on Wednesday evening, or else the Yankees can put them on the precipice of disappointment.

The moment belongs to Keuchel. Take a deep breath.

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