Vintage Keuchel takes perfecto into 7th: 'This is why I came back'

August 20th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- is a World Series champion, a Cy Young Award winner and a two-time All-Star -- a decorated and respected veteran nearing the end of a fruitful career. It’s safe to say that at this point, he doesn’t have anything more to prove to the baseball world.

But here Keuchel still is, perhaps written off by many but still continuing to show that he’s got the stuff to threaten the sport’s record books.

On Sunday afternoon at Target Field, Keuchel took a perfect-game bid into the seventh inning, retiring the first 19 Pirates hitters before yielding a double to Bryan Reynolds that ended the left-hander's chase for the first perfecto in Twins history. Minnesota (65-60) rode that effort to a 2-0 victory over Pittsburgh and a season-high six-game lead over Cleveland (59-66) in the American League Central.

“As long as I’m around the zone and making sure I’m mixing pitches and tunneling stuff correctly, like today, I can be as good as anyone out there,” Keuchel said. “This is why I came back. This was a good feeling.”

It’s as close to perfection as a Twins left-hander has come since Francisco Loriano was perfect through 6 1/3 innings on June 12, 2011, and it is tied for the third-longest such bid by a southpaw since the team moved to Minnesota in 1961, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It means you’re doing something right, and I mean that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s not by accident that he continues to find ways to get outs.”

“A guy like that really thrives on weak contact,” said Pirates first baseman Connor Joe. “Unfortunately, we had a lot of weak contact. He got us today, and he had a better game than us.”

That is, until Reynolds, a 2021 All-Star, took a big hack at a 3-1 sinker at the letters and launched the ball to right-center field, where it caromed off the wall out of the reach of right fielder Matt Wallner to end both Keuchel’s attempt at history and his outing at 6 1/3 innings. Had the ball been a foot or so lower, Wallner thinks he would have had it.

Keuchel admits he was gassed at that point, anyway. He blamed the hundreds of milligrams of caffeine coursing through his veins for him lying to Baldelli before the inning that he had it in him to go the distance.

“I was kind of all over the place with the two-seam, and [I] just was fortunate to kind of get one out [in the seventh],” Keuchel said. “I knew I was kind of running on fumes at that point. So it wasn't a relief, but at the same time, when I came out, I knew I gave everything I had.”

Keuchel, who struck out three, doffed his cap and gazed around at the roaring crowd of 25,987 as he walked back to the first-base dugout -- a sight that likely would have felt tough to imagine as he struggled to a 9.20 ERA while bouncing around between three teams last season.

“Just enjoying every time I get to step on the mound,” Keuchel said. “I don't think I've ever taken it for granted, but at the same time, you kind of get in this robotic mindset where it's so intense and so competitive that it kind of just flies by without [you] enjoying it. So I've made sure to enjoy it a little bit more every time out.”

Coupled with Sonny Gray’s 5 1/3 perfect innings to begin his start against Pittsburgh on Saturday, Keuchel made Minnesota the second team in the past 50 seasons to have consecutive perfect-game bids of at least five innings in the same series, joining Cleveland, which had three in a row from June 29 to July 1, 2015.

With Joe Ryan nearly ready to return to the Twins’ starting rotation, it’s unclear how many opportunities remain for Keuchel with Minnesota over the season’s final month.

But even after Keuchel allowed six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings to the Phillies in his last start, Baldelli said the Twins had every intention of giving the ball to him again. And after an outing like Keuchel had on Sunday, Baldelli said his group had already talked about the possibility of a six-man rotation to keep the 35-year-old lefty in the mix upon Ryan’s return.

“He’s put himself in a nice position through hard work and a lot of perseverance,” Baldelli said. “You get rewarded by watching a guy go out there and throw a gem just like that.”