Dallas Keuchel’s first Braves start was defined by circumstances out of his power. The game of inches wasn’t in his favor, with an inexplicable error and glove scraper looming large over his outing.
Keuchel, a mid-season addition to boost an untested rotation, wasn’t particularly sharp but managed to avoid bad situations turning worse Friday night in Washington. Unfortunately for him, two mishaps spoiled the start for him and the Braves, who lost to the Nationals 4-3.
In his season debut, the southpaw spread eight hits over five innings. He was tagged for four runs (three earned), struck out three and walked none (though he hit Victor Robles twice).
“I felt better than I was expecting to,” Keuchel said. “Mentally, just trying to lock it in was going to be the biggest thing for me. Pitch in, pinch out, I felt like I was in mid-season form now. I’d like to have a few pitches back here and there, but just a few tough breaks.”
It was Keuchel’s third outing of the month after making a pair of minor league starts in preparation for Friday. It was his first major-league game since tossing five innings in the Astros’ Game 5 postseason loss to the Red Sox on Oct. 16.
The former Cy Young winner didn’t produce a clean inning. Trea Turner reached on an infield single to start the game, but Keuchel retired the next three with a soft grounder, strikeout and flyout.
After Keuchel worked his way out of jams in the second and third innings, Ozzie Albies’ error swung the game in the fourth. Washington’s Brian Dozier reached when Albies fielded a grounder and skied the throw over first base and into the stands. The All-Star second baseman appeared to rush the throw.
Robles tripled in the next at-bat, plating the Nationals’ first run. Michael Taylor scored Robles on a sacrifice bunt before Yan Gomes took Keuchel deep to left. Gomes plastered a misplaced 88-mph four-seamer. In a matter of moments, a 3-0 Braves lead evaporated.
Keuchel set down the next two, ending the threat. But Juan Soto opened the fifth with a triple and scored when Anthony Rendon singled just beyond the reach of Dansby Swanson. The shortstop, one of seven potential Braves All-Stars, saw the ball bounce off his glove and into the outfield.
Howie Kendrick followed with a single. Keuchel hit Robles for the second time, setting up a bases-loaded scenario with one down. He remained poised – as the team repeatedly stated he would in such situations – and got a force out at home and flyout to center to end the inning and his night.
“The fifth inning could’ve went - we could’ve been behind 7-3 really easily,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I really liked what I saw. He has to start somewhere. I think he’s got a chance to be really, really good over the course of time here.”
How Keuchel navigated adversity is a positive takeaway. He looked confident in stressful situations, and despite not physically overpowering hitters, was effective in the mid-to-high 90s. Keuchel rarely touched 90 mph, as expected, making him a nice change-of-pace from the hard-throwers in the Braves’ rotation.
While Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and Mike Soroka can dazzle with their physical gifts, Keuchel is more a shrewd operator, winning with pitch placement.
“I was able to make some big pitches but the most frustrating part is (the offense) getting three runs early off (Stephen) Strasburg,” Keuchel said. “When you’re in that position, you have to close the lid and make some quality pitches. I made it tough on myself with a couple guys to lead off the innings. ... Being granted three runs early off a really, really good pitcher is something I have to take advantage of. Usually I do. That’s the most frustrating part to me.”
For an American League lifer, Keuchel held his own at the plate. He even drew a seven-pitch walk off Strasburg in the fifth. Swanson grounded into a double play that squandered that two-on, one-out scoring chance.
“It’s been a minute (since I reached first base),” Keuchel said. “I was just trying to hold my own up there. I didn’t want to look foolish.”
Overall, Keuchel’s stuff looked up to par, especially for a player who’d been throwing simulated games while his colleagues played the early-season slate. He faced 26 batters, throwing 99 pitches (64 strikes). He made his mistakes, namely on the Gomes homer and Soto triple, yet minimized damage and got crafty outs.
“He’s going to help us a lot,” said catcher Brian McCann, who played with Keuchel in Houston. “When he gets more starts under his belt, the more into the season he gets, he’ll be a little more crisp. I thought he threw the ball really well.”
McCann and Keuchel were pivotal pieces of the Astros’ 2017 World Series title. They formed a tight bond, and McCann didn’t hesitate hyping Keuchel up to his teammates.
What the backstop saw Friday was more of the same, just in a different uniform. McCann especially liked how Keuchel’s sinker played.
“He keeps the ball on the ground,” he said. “You can get out of (jams) with one pitch. He kept them off balance tonight, we just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
The Braves are banking on Keuchel performing up to his 2018 numbers, when he earned a 3.74 ERA and logged over 200 innings for the Astros. Despite a resume that includes a Cy Young (2015), two All-Star nods and four Gold Gloves, Keuchel didn’t sign a deal until after June’s draft, when he was freed of attached draft-pick compensation due to receiving a qualifying offer.
After months of conversation, agent Scott Boras and the Braves came to terms on a one-year, $13 million contract June 7, allowing Keuchel to join a contender while building value towards next winter’s free agency, when he’ll aim for the multi-year commitment that eluded him last cycle.
Keuchel’s next start will come at the Cubs on Wednesday. Chicago’s collective .239 average against lefties ranks 23rd in the majors, while its runs (77, 23rd) and homers (26, 17th) also rank pedestrian against left-handers.
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