Keuchel struggles at inopportune time for Astros

October 19, 2017

NEW YORK - With two outs and a runner on second in the second inning, Astros starter Dallas Keuchel whipped two sinkers inside to Yankees first baseman Greg Bird.

Keuchel had a clear lefty-on-lefty approach: jam him or, if necessary, finish him with a breaking ball away.

A third consecutive sinker beneath Bird’s hands would come next.

Up to that point, Keuchel had a giant slayer’s reputation for oppressing the New York Yankees through 142⁄3 innings of competition in the postseason, where they have reigned more often than any other franchise.

The lefthander had inspired such fear that those roles reversed by Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night. The Yankees viewed Keuchel as nearly indomitable.

“To beat him, we have to be close to perfect,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi had said before the game. “And we have to play a little bit better and not miss pitches.”

In any other game, Keuchel likely would strand the runner - Starlin Castro, who doubled in the previous at-bat - and overwhelm the batter, no matter who stood in the box.

But the Yankees evolved since their last matchup with Keuchel in Game 1. Their starters grew stronger. Their babies became bombers. Their manager proved prescient.

Bird pulled in his hands to stroke Keuchel’s third sinker over the head of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for a single that scored Castro.

“That proved to be all they needed,” Keuchel said later.

With that first slice into Keuchel, the Yankees bled him for three more runs in 42⁄3 innings, defeated the Astros 5-0 and took a 3-2 series lead.

After losing both of the first two games in Houston 2-1, the Yankees vastly outhit the Astros in three consecutive wins at Yankees Stadium.

Bird epitomized his team’s timely hits of late. The Yankees are batting .333 (19-for-57) with two outs in the ALCS.

“They’ve hit some pretty good pitches,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.

Right fielder Aaron Judge continued a thread that Bird had started. Judge ripped an insid cutter for a double that plated left fielder Brett Gardner in the third.

“This cutter was in,” Keuchel said. “Maybe it wasn’t quite in enough.”

Keuchel exited the game in the fifth after allowing two more runs on a double by catcher Gary Sanchez and a groundball single up the middle by shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Keuchel wished he had bounced the slider to Sanchez, rather than leave it in the lower part of the zone.

“Sanchez’s double down the line was a pitch down-and-in,” Keuchel said. “He hadn’t had great success on that pitch.”

Keuchel said of Gregorius’ single: “The ball wasn’t hit very hard. The ball was just placed right.”

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve dove and grazed Gregorius’ grounder with the edge of his mitt. He lay on his belly briefly, then lifted his head enough to watch the ball - and any hope the Astros had of coming back - spiral further out of reach.

Keuchel said he thought of disappointment as he walked off the mound.

“I just let the guys down,” he said. They look toward me to stop the bleeding and stop some losses. I was unable to do that. That’s the most frustrating part.”

By the end of the night, Hinch sounded like his counterpart on the other side of the diamond.

“Once you get behind in the playoffs,” Hinch said, “you have to be pretty perfect. At least it feels that way.”