CLEVELAND -- When Dallas Keuchel debuted in 2012, the Astros were in the middle of their three-year run of 100-loss seasons, seven years removed from their last postseason appearance, and the rebuild was just getting underway.
Today, Houston's longest-tenured pitcher has a chance to pitch his team into the American League Championship Series in what may be his last year in an Astros uniform.
Houston, up 2-0 in the AL Division Series, is aiming for a sweep over the Indians at Progressive Field. Keuchel, a pending free agent, will undoubtedly be exploring opportunities this offseason in a free-agent market that is typically welcoming toward left-handed starters.
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But this is no time to wax nostalgic. The Astros have more games to play and are well-positioned to become the first team to repeat as World Series champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. But it's also not unreasonable to pause for a brief moment to reflect on Keuchel's tenure in Houston, which has in many ways been a microcosm of the club's winning (but first, losing) trajectory over the past six years.
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The left-hander, while focused on the Indians, admitted the not-so-distant future has crossed his mind.
"This season has been more meaningful, I think, just because it could potentially be my last," Keuchel said. "I've never taken for granted anything to this point with the Astros or my own career. You start to cherish the little things when, potentially, it could be -- you could be in a different spot next year."
Keuchel cut his teeth in the big leagues when few were paying attention to the Astros. He made 16 starts in 2012, the year Houston lost 107 games. Keuchel logged more than 150 innings the following year in a 111-loss season, and he hit a stride in '14, recording 200 innings and posting a 2.93 ERA.
That, not so coincidentally, was also the first year the Astros, still with more losses than wins, showed hints that the rebuild was nearing an end game.
In 2015, the Astros made the postseason for the first time under general manager Jeff Luhnow, and Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) won the AL Cy Young Award. Three years later, he's part of a starting rotation so dominant that he's the No. 3 starter, behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
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That's a far cry from a rotation that included the likes of Lucas Harrell and Erik Bedard a mere five years ago.
"I've been on the other side, where we're packing up our stuff on Sept. 30 and watching the other eight teams go at it," Keuchel said. "I'm just trying to enjoy myself as much as possible, because I know how short this ride can be, but how long it also could be, as well."
For now, Keuchel's focus is not on free agency, but on the Indians' lineup, which will be fighting to try to stay relevant in a so-far winless postseason series. Keuchel has produced favorable results in the past against the Tribe, posting a 4-1 record and a 2.79 ERA in eight career games (seven starts). He's faced them twice this season, allowing six earned runs over 11 innings, and in his career at Progressive Field, he's 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA.
Also notable is the progress Keuchel made over the course of 2018. After a slow start that produced eight losses in his first 13 starts, Keuchel recorded a 3.23 ERA over his final 20 outings.
"He got back to being himself," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He knows who he is, what he does best -- attacking the game plan, improvising as the game goes along. He gets the ball on the ground. He gets soft contact. He got ultra-focused on just getting back to his strengths and being himself."
Keuchel has the chance to leave Houston this offseason as a two-time World Series champion, but even if that plan falls short and he signs elsewhere, the lefty will leave behind a legacy as an original piece of the Astros' modern-day power core.
"This team has made it easy to come to the ballpark every day and just enjoy it," Keuchel said. "So I have enjoyed it, and whether or not this is my last run with the Astros, like I said, it's easy to come to the ballpark with this group. I've cherished it enough that I know how to go about my business and do things the right way."