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Keuchel continues Astros' run of dominant starts

Hinch replicating expected in-season catching routine for Gattis
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros' starting pitching has been terrific this spring. One day after Justin Verlander struck out eight of the first 11 batters he faced en route to a dominant five-inning start, Dallas Keuchel retired the first 11 batters he faced in Saturday's 2-2 tie against the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, including five strikeouts. He was pulled after 3 2/3 innings following a single by Bryce Harper.

Lance McCullers Jr., who's set to make his third start of the spring Sunday against the Mets, hasn't allowed a run in 4 2/3 innings, and Charlie Morton has thrown five scoreless innings in two starts. Gerrit Cole has given up six hits and one run in 8 2/3 innings over three starts.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros' starting pitching has been terrific this spring. One day after Justin Verlander struck out eight of the first 11 batters he faced en route to a dominant five-inning start, Dallas Keuchel retired the first 11 batters he faced in Saturday's 2-2 tie against the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, including five strikeouts. He was pulled after 3 2/3 innings following a single by Bryce Harper.

Lance McCullers Jr., who's set to make his third start of the spring Sunday against the Mets, hasn't allowed a run in 4 2/3 innings, and Charlie Morton has thrown five scoreless innings in two starts. Gerrit Cole has given up six hits and one run in 8 2/3 innings over three starts.

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"It's one step closer to the season and guys are doing what we expect them to do," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I'm really proud of them because they came in ready to pitch and it's on display virtually every day with these guys. We have a chance to have a really, really good starting rotation. They're putting in the work and getting the results."

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Keuchel, who gave up two runs and four hits in 1 2/3 innings in his first outing Monday, was much sharper with his fastball command Saturday.

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Hinch in his team's superb starting pitching pic.twitter.com/HEUlG7R0L8

"It all starts with the fastball command. That's what it always will be," Keuchel said. "I was fortunate to get a few pitches ahead of the first couple of hitters and came out in the second inning and felt even better. I've just continued to work on fastball command throughout this camp, and if I get that down earlier, the better for the offspeed pitches."

Verlander will start on Opening Day on March 29 against the Rangers, and Keuchel will start the second game of the season the following night. The Astros haven't announced their rotation beyond that, but McCullers is following Keuchel in the rotation in the spring.

Camp battles
Astros catcher Evan Gattis has caught only two games this spring, including Thursday against the Braves. Gattis won't catch as much in the regular season this year as the backup to Brian McCann because the Astros are expected to also carry catcher Max Stassi, who will bring an added defensive presence.

"I'm trying to catch him once or twice a week to give him some breaks in between to mirror what would happen in the season," Hinch said. "We're going to carry three catchers, most likely, and that will spread the catching out a little bit. I want him to be comfortable with having three or four days off from catching and then going back behind the plate with his rhythm, his timing, his throwing, blocking.

Video: Outlook: Gattis has chance to return to 20 homers

"We've run into this with some bench players, where you play every single day in Spring Training and then all of a sudden you get to the season and there's a gap in time. So you're going to start to see some guys that either platoon or guys that may not play every single day for us are going to have some days off in between to reset their timing coming off the bench."

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Gattis has been working on his throwing this spring, and Hinch said he's pleased with the progress.

Odds and ends
• Hinch said reliever Hector Rendon, who hasn't pitched in two weeks, came through a "high-intensity" bullpen session on Friday without any issues. There's still no timetable on when he'll get back into a Grapefruit League game.

• Relief pitchers Tony Sipp and Will Harris beat infielders Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve in the team's annual basketball shooting contest Saturday in what Hinch called an upset. "It usually comes down to the wire," Hinch said. "That was an easy one for Harris and Sipp." Altuve competed in the final round sans shoes.

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Bregman takes his shot pic.twitter.com/VZFYP1jic2

Injury update
First baseman Yuli Gurriel (left hand surgery) will be out until mid-April.

Up next
The Astros will send McCullers to the mound for Sunday's 12:10 p.m. CT game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla. McCullers has appeared in two games, allowing one hit and no runs in 4 2/3 innings. Watch on MLB.TV.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Evan Gattis, Dallas Keuchel