It was only two years ago that Dallas Keuchel's baseball career was at a crossroads. To be blunt, Keuchel had no idea if he was going to have a baseball career. Or at least have one that anyone would remember.
Seems hard to believe now, doesn't it?
"I was at the tipping point," Keuchel said. "I didn't know if I had a job or not. I didn't know what the future held for me."
It's almost impossible to grasp how quickly things have changed. Two years later, there's no discussion of baseball's best pitchers -- and one of its most decent and likeable people -- without the 28-year-old Keuchel's name coming up.
Two years ago, Keuchel had made 38 Major League starts and was 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA. Since then, he's 32-17 with 432 innings and a 2.69 ERA. Keuchel is coming off a 20-8 record, 232-inning masterpiece that won him the American League Cy Young Award as the Astros made their first postseason appearance in 10 years.
Perhaps no single player represents the franchise's renaissance better than this combination of talent, perseverance and an aptitude that's absolutely off the charts.
Keuchel is not blessed with a laser of a fastball. That's the thing people sometimes focus on too much with pitchers. He more than makes up for it with a genius-level ability to locate pitches, change speeds and understand what does and doesn't get hitters out.
Last season, Keuchel's 25.2 percent "soft contact" rate was the highest in the Majors, according to fangraphs.com. And he had fewer hard-hit balls -- 21.3 percent -- than anyone else.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't appreciate what has happened to me," Keuchel said. "There wasn't one day last season that I came to the park without a smile on my face. That was different from 2013, where you come in thinking you're going to get beat on a daily basis."
Keuchel ticks off the people who've helped, beginning with his Minor League pitching coach, Doug Brocail (now with the Rangers), and Brent Strom of the Astros. Keuchel has utilized the organization's scouting reports -- tip of the hat to general manager Jeff Luhnow's structure -- and figured out how to exploit hitters' weaknesses.
But the credit always circles back to Keuchel himself.
"His preparation is elite," Astros manager, A.J. Hinch said. "And his standards are elite. He expects to execute every pitch, expects to last deep into the game.
"When he has the ball, he has great intent. When I say that, it's about getting the hitter out and controlling the inning and staying deep into games. That mindset is pretty special."
Back to the spring of 2014. Keuchel had been roughed up in a start against the Marlins two days earlier when he and Strom began a bullpen session.
"I told him my arm was just killing me," Kuechel said.
Strom began to tinker with Keuchel's mechanics. Keuchel listened. Something clicked. He couldn't have known it at the time, but his career had been reborn.
"From then on, it was a lot smoother water," Keuchel said. "I've had better command, better feel, more consistency. How the pitch came out of my hand was different. We both noticed it then, and we noticed it in games. They weren't squaring me up as much. There was some weak contact and more strikeouts. The results were obvious. At that point, the foundation was set, and you could tinker with stuff. Last year, I kind of found my niche with my mechanics and stuff."
Along the way, Keuchel has become a living, breathing example for every scuffling young pitcher out there who thinks it's about throwing harder and harder.
"I just want people to realize it's not always easy," he said. "There's going to be a time you're the most talented guy in the room, but as you get higher and higher up, everybody's talented. It takes a special mind to separate themselves from the pack. I work hard. I want people to know that. I study the game. I love the game."
In 17 scoreless innings this spring, Keuchel has allowed seven hits, issuing two walks and striking out 16. He'll get his second straight Opening Day assignment when the Astros open the season Monday at Yankee Stadium.
Oh, and there's that whole beard thing. Keuchel started growing it two years ago when some high school buddies promised him $500 to let it grow the whole season. He didn't get the $500, but he did become one of the most recognizable faces in the game thanks to the beard -- and the success.
All in all, a good tradeoff.
"I've come close to cutting it," Keuchel said. "It gets in the way of some stuff, like tying your tie. But it's important to me. I guess it's a sense of calmness. It's part of my brand, but people associate it with the Astros. If that gets more recognition for the team, that's good."