WASHINGTON -- Given the Braves signed Dallas Keuchel to impact the National League East race, they certainly aren’t going to be overly concerned by the results he realized during the first mile of what could still be considered a half marathon.
Pitching in a Major League game for the first time since last year’s American League Championship Series, Keuchel certainly wasn’t at his best as he completed five innings in a 4-3 loss to the Nationals on Friday night at Nationals Park. But as the veteran lefty shook off some rust, he showed signs of why the Braves were willing to give him $13 million to spend a little more than three months in their rotation.
“I really liked what I saw,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s got to start somewhere. I think he’s got a chance to be really, really good over the course of time. He hadn’t been out there since October.”
Keuchel surrendered eight hits and four runs -- three earned -- over five innings. The 31-year-old left-hander generated good movement with his two-seamer, but the average velocity (87.6 mph) of this pitch matched a career low per Baseball Savant’s database. There’s certainly reason to believe he is still regaining arm strength after spending eight months on the free-agent market and making just two Minor League starts before this debut.
“I felt better than I expected,” Keuchel said. “Mentally, trying to lock it in was going to be the biggest thing for me. But I felt like I was in midseason form. I’d like to have a few pitches back. It was just a few tough breaks.”
The toughest break of the night for the Braves came when they put two on with none out in the ninth but couldn't score. Victor Robles slid across the right-field grass to rob Dansby Swanson of a game-tying single to end the game. But the defending NL East champs still own a 4 1/2-game lead over the Phillies and a 6 1/2-game advantage over the Nationals, who have won nine of their past 12.
Austin Riley gave the Braves an early lead with his two-run homer off Stephen Strasburg in the second inning and Freddie Freeman extended the lead to 3-0 with a third-inning double. But Keuchel began to falter after Ozzie Albies made an off-balance, errant throw after ranging to the left side of the diamond to field Brian Dozier’s grounder to begin Washington’s three-run fourth.
Robles followed with a triple and scored on Michael A. Taylor’s safety squeeze bunt. Yan Gomes then hit an elevated pitch over the left-field fence for a game-tying homer. The Nationals' catcher entered the game 7-for-19 with two doubles and seven strikeouts against the Braves' lefty, who had spent each of his previous seven Major League seasons with the Astros.
“When he was with Cleveland, I had had a lot of success with the cutter in and then the fastball upstairs,” Keuchel said. “He put a really good swing on the home run ball. I felt he was cheating in, but good hitters make adjustments.”
Keuchel won the 2015 AL Cy Young Award and has made nine postseason starts, including a few that helped Houston win the '17 World Series. That experience and poise he could bring to Atlanta’s young rotation were seen when he didn’t crumble after allowing three straight hits, including Juan Soto’s leadoff triple and Anthony Rendon's soft single that bounced out of Swanson’s glove, to begin the fifth. He concluded his outing by getting Gomes to fly out to deep center with the bases loaded.
"We made him get the ball up,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “He's a very good pitcher, obviously. He knows how to pitch. After the first couple of times around, we got the ball up."
This was not an atypical outing for Keuchel, who produced MLB’s best ground-ball rate (54.7 percent) last season. Ten of the 21 balls put in play against him were hit on the ground. That ratio was eight of 15 entering the fifth inning, which was highlighted by the sharp grounder Soto snuck by the first-base bag for a triple.
Having played with Keuchel in Houston each of the past two seasons, Braves catcher Brian McCann knows his new pitcher as well as anybody. He walked away from this debut excited for what the experienced hurler will bring over the remainder of the race.
“He’s going to really help us a lot,” McCann said. “The more into the season he gets, he’s going to be a little more crisp. I thought he threw the ball really well. But we couldn’t stop the bleeding in the fourth inning.”