HOUSTON -- When Dallas Keuchel returned to the dugout after the top of the sixth inning on Friday, Astros manager A.J. Hinch wondered whether the lefty was ready to call it a night.
"Don't even think about it," Keuchel said. "This is the playoffs."
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The Astros did a long list of things right in defeating the Yankees, 2-1, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World. But it begins with Keuchel performing at his best in front of a roaring crowd of 43,116 at Minute Maid Park.
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What we are seeing with this guy is not just pitching at a high level; it's pitching at a historically high level. Keuchel is the first pitcher since at least 1912 to go 4-0 with a sub-1.00 ERA in his first four postseason starts.
But that's just a start. He's been especially tough on the Yankees, having beaten them in the postseason twice in the past three years while recording a 0.73 ERA in six starts overall against them.
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"He's got that late movement on both sides of the plate," Yanks manager Joe Girardi said. "I thought our at-bats were much better against him the second time through the lineup, and we had a chance to score. … But it's who he is. He's a very good pitcher."
Keuchel's secret is no secret. One thing he has been able to do since his high school days in Tulsa, Okla., is throw the baseball where he wanted to throw it, with late movement.
When Keuchel is at his best, he has hitters lunging for pitches that look like strikes but end up out of the zone.
"He just lives on the corners," Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said. "He doesn't miss his spot. If you go through the whole game, there weren't a lot of pitches in the heart of the plate. He likes to live on the edges, and he commands it well. He mixes speeds well and keeps you off balance."
According to Statcast™ data on Keuchel:
• Friday night's 81-mph average exit velocity against Keuchel was his fourth lowest in a start this season. By locating his fastball and slider so precisely, hitters were not able to sit on any one pitch.
• Keuchel's 21 called strikes were his highest total since April 25. He simply caught the Yanks guessing wrong.
• Eighteen of Keuchel's 21 outs came via strikeout or groundout, another indication that he kept hitters off balance.
• Fourteen of Keuchel's 24 swings and misses came on pitches out of the strike zone.
First, Keuchel traded scoreless innings with Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, and when the Astros scratched out a pair of runs in the fourth, Keuchel kept the Yanks off the scoreboard for three more innings.
Keuchel had a little help from his friends, with Jose Altuve getting on base three times and left fielder Marwin Gonzalez throwing out Greg Bird at the plate in the fifth.
Keuchel said he felt sluggish in the bullpen during his pregame warmup and didn't really get locked in until around the third inning. He was frustrated enough at one point to have a chat with home-plate umpire Chad Fairchild about a couple of pitches he was convinced should have been called strikes.
The lefty was also fighting the adrenaline of pitching in the ALCS.
"I needed to calm myself down, just because I was so hyped and so jacked up," Keuchel said. "I went down in the tunnel and just kind of took a couple deep breaths, enjoyed myself and what this means to our team and just went from there. And at that point, that was probably when I knew I was locked in."
This was very much the guy who won the AL Cy Young Award two seasons ago while pitching 232 innings with a league-leading 1.02 WHIP.
There were times the past two seasons when Keuchel wondered whether he'd get back to that point. He finished 2016 on the disabled list with a cranky shoulder and spent two more months on the shelf this season.
"I knew from 2016 how detrimental trying to pitch while being injured can cost a team," Keuchel said, "and I think I cost the team more than I helped it out last year, and that's something I don't want to do. There's always a little bit of doubt about how good you're going to be when you come back, no matter what the injury, and that's just a human element."
Now, Keuchel is as good as ever and has been for a few weeks. When Hinch begins a series like this one with his two aces, Keuchel and Justin Verlander, rested and lined up, his entire clubhouse is confident.
"He was so good tonight and locked in mentally, he didn't give in at all," Hinch said. "He just continued to go out and got stronger as the game went on."