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Back at Tri-City, Keuchel has crisp rehab start

Special to MLB.com

LOWELL, Mass. -- After finishing his warmup pitches prior to entering his rehab start Saturday, Astros Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel fist-bumped each Tri-City teammate in the bullpen. After he turned around toward the dugout, a couple of them stared at the hands he'd touched and started to laugh.

It was star treatment for the pitcher who was 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA before being placed on the disabled list June 8 with a neck injury. He hasn't pitched in the Majors since June 2 for the first-place Astros. But he will return to his team after going five innings for the Class A Short-Season ValleyCats on Saturday night, allowing one run. He had five strikeouts, hit one batter and allowed three hits over 62 pitches.

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LOWELL, Mass. -- After finishing his warmup pitches prior to entering his rehab start Saturday, Astros Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel fist-bumped each Tri-City teammate in the bullpen. After he turned around toward the dugout, a couple of them stared at the hands he'd touched and started to laugh.

It was star treatment for the pitcher who was 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA before being placed on the disabled list June 8 with a neck injury. He hasn't pitched in the Majors since June 2 for the first-place Astros. But he will return to his team after going five innings for the Class A Short-Season ValleyCats on Saturday night, allowing one run. He had five strikeouts, hit one batter and allowed three hits over 62 pitches.

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"As much as you can try to simulate the stress of throwing to competitive hitters, it takes a lot out of you, even if you're in A-ball," Keuchel said after the start. "That's why I wanted to get in the fifth at least, and see how it was. If I can compete at 75 percent stamina, then I'm doing something right."

Keuchel had a 1-2-3 first inning, allowed an infield single in the second, pitched a 1-2-3 third and hit a batter in the fourth. He ran into trouble in the fifth inning, when he coughed up back-to-back one-out doubles.

The start marked Keuchel's return to the ballpark where he started his professional career in 2009. The lefty pitched that whole season for Tri-City. He said it all came back to him when he got to the ballpark, and he was about 85 percent sure of where everything was.

Keuchel made his first rehab start for Double-A Corpus Christi, but because the Astros are on the East Coast, moving the rehab to Class A Short-Season made the most sense. Keuchel will fly to Baltimore on Sunday morning to rejoin the Astros before they move on to Philadelphia. There were no available flights to Baltimore on Saturday night.

"I feel like I haven't really contributed anything the last two months," Keuchel said. "Been watching our offense score five, six, seven runs a game. ... They're doing their thing, having fun. I'm able to slide back in there."

Before the game started, the father of ValleyCats catcher Michael Papierski leaned over the railing to try to get a photo of his son catching warmups from Keuchel.

For Keuchel, Saturday was first and foremost about readying himself for the stretch run in a pennant race. But it was also about coming back to the place where he started his career, with the team he first pitched for professionally. It was cool not just for him, but all the players around him, too.

"I feel like an old man now, 29. It was eight years ago that I was drafted," Keuchel said. "I missed how small the clubhouse was. At the same time, you get to know each other and your teammates and everything. ... One way or another, we're all trying to make it to the big leagues."

Sam Blum is a contributor to MLB.com.

Houston Astros, Dallas Keuchel