Primary was the fact he went just 4-2/3 innings before being lifted by Brian Snitker, with the score tied 1-1. That matched the second briefest outing of his now 10 playoff starts. And it left the Braves to start up the conga line from their bullpen earlier than anyone would have preferred.
Was it too early to lift him? There was some biting of the lips on that topic.
“I thought we had a good connection going on,” Keuchel said of his work with battery-mate Brian McCann. “The strikeouts weren’t there but at the same time there was a lot of weak contact and a lot of ground balls. For me there wasn’t any indication (about needing to get the hook) but I’m not going to sit here and dissect what happened, because Snit on multiple occasions has let me go longer than I know he would have liked. At any point in time if he wants to take me out, that’s his prerogative. I’m not going to second-guess anything.”
“I thought he threw the ball extremely well,” McCann said. “He kept the ball down, his ball has some good action on it tonight. He was on top of his game. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”
Well enough to go beyond 4 2/3?
“Listen, I’m not getting into all that. He threw the ball extremely well, so ...” the catcher said, trailing off.
Keuchel yielded five hits over a span that was marked by both his wont to pitch like he patented the ground ball (12 ground-ball outs) and his knack for escaping trouble (runners in scoring position in innings 3-5).
Hardly overpowering, he struck out none, his fastball living in the upper 80s. And he thrived on the largess of the double-play ground ball. But, yes, wily enough to keep everything manageable while his Cardinals counterpart – Miles Mikolas, making a first postseason start – pitched four scoreless innings after giving up a nervous run in the first.
Keuchel had “no decision” written all over his first Braves playoff start.
After coming out strong, the first three Cardinals hitters grounding out on 11 pitches, Keuchel began encountering far more stressful innings.
The veteran had done some of his best work this season under duress – opponents hitting 110 points lower (.177) with runners in scoring position than with bases empty. He lived on that ragged edge again Thursday.
The first Cardinal who got as far as second arrived there in the third inning in the unlikely form of pitcher Mikolas, who hit a one-out, ground-rule double to left. Keuchel then walked St. Louis leadoff man Dexter Fowler before relying on his old friend the ground ball. This one was scooped up by third baseman Josh Donaldson and redeemed for a slick double play.
The Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt led off the fourth with a double. Keuchel walked clean-up hitter Marcell Ozuna, pitching carefully around him. Then came another ground ball to Donaldson, who stepped on third to get Goldschmidt and completed the double play by throwing out Yadier Molina at first. One more walk, to Paul DeJong, and then Keuchel escaped the inning unharmed with Kolten Wong grounded out to second.
Come the fifth, the Cardinals figured out a scoring combination that would work. It required a Harrison Bader infield single to lead off and a sacrifice bunt. Bader stole third, with Keuchel paying him no attention. And then scored on a Dexter Fowler ground out to the right side. “I’m more disappointed in myself in letting Bader take third base. That’s on me,” Keuchel said. “I’m usually really, really good at holding runners on.”
Then Keuchel’s 74th and final pitch of the evening was smoked for a double by third baseman Tommy Edman. Snitker determined he wanted someone else to go after Goldschmidt, and Darren O’Day obliged, aided by a diving catch of a hard-hit line drive by shortstop Dansby Swanson.
For this important tone-setting game, the Braves had turned to experience over the young starter with the ERA more than a run lower than Keuchel’s 3.75 (Mike Soroka) or the one with the hot hand in September (Mike Foltynewicz, 4-1, 1.50 ERA).
They could not be certain which Keuchel they would see. The one who was 5-0 with a 0.97 ERA in six starts from mid-August into September. Or the one who lost his next three starts (6.19 ERA) to close out the regular season.
They got neither, really. But close enough to the former to keep them viable before the Braves felt compelled to go early and often to the ’pen.
The prospect of Keuchel getting another opportunity to upgrade his Braves postseason catalog was thus left in someone else’s hands.
“As a whole, I felt I gave them a chance to win but ultimately would have liked to go longer,” he said. “Hopefully it will be a little bit better next time out.”