HOUSTON – There was no debate. The manager knew this, the pitcher knew this, every one of the orange thunderstick-thumping fans, packed to the gills for the first postseason game in 11 years in this city, knew this. Of all the strange things that would happen in this quite strange game—among other things, a ball was hit so high that it ricocheted off the ballpark’s closed roof, and landed on the grass for a hit—this would rank about 350th: the manager walking to the mound to have a conversation with the pitcher with 117 pitches on the day, and the manager deciding to leave the pitcher in to face the hitter who, only three innings earlier, facing this very pitcher, hit a ball nearly to Arlington.
No, Dallas Keuchel, facing Lorenzo Cain in the seventh inning, his team clinging to a one-run lead with one man on and two outs, was not leaving this game. Plus, according to the pitcher, Astros manager A.J. Hinch knew precisely what would happen if he did give the pitcher the heave-ho. “I would bite his head off,” said the 27-year-old with the gnarliest beard (and fastball) of this October, the Astros’ ace who would retire the Royals’ most dangerous hitter with a 90-mph four-seamer, and crush K.C.’s hopes, in the biggest moment of Houston’s 4-2 win over the Royals in Game 3 of the ALDS.
No, the ace of Houston throwing 124 pitches, the most in a postseason game in two Octobers, was far from the strangest thing in a win that gives the Astros a 2-1 lead in the series. In fact, it was the kind of pitching performance that has become de rigueur this postseason, this October of the workhorse ace. Keuchel, whose regular-season high was 122, was the eighth pitcher with a start with more than 110 pitches this October, joining Jacob deGrom (121), Jon Lester (115), Noah Syndergaard (115), Cole Hamels (114), Jake Arrieta (113), Clayton Kershaw (113) and Zack Greinke (110). There had been 11 postseason games played through Sunday’s Game 3 in Houston, and in the entire postseason last year, only six pitchers topped the 110-pitch mark. Only three this decade that had as many as the Keuchel’s 124 or more: Clayton Kershaw (124 in 2013 NLDS Game 1), Justin Verlander (132, 2012 ALCS Game 3), and Roy Halladay (126, 2011 NLDS Game 5).
Fire up the Madison Bumgarner comparisons: Keuchel has now gone 16-0 with a 1.45 ERA in 19 home starts—the last AL pitcher to win 16 combined home games, across the playoffs and regular season, was Jack Morris in 1991. In an age of pitch counts and the coddling of pitchers, we should savor performances like this, and from a forward-thinking organization like Houston, we shouldn’t be surprised. Hinch, after all, is a manager who permitted Mike Fiers to throw 134 pitches in his no hitter in August. A manager who, before the wild-card game in New York, while talking about Keuchel pitching on three days’ rest, said the focus on pitch counts and rest was basically malarkey: “a bigger deal than maybe it really is. I think in this stage, adrenaline is going to carry them a long way.”
Hinch, calling the shots in his first postseason, has been managing with an aggressiveness and sense of urgency that far too many skippers refuse to channel this time of year. In the bottom of the eighth, with two out and a runner on first and the Astros up 4-1, Hinch turned to his best reliever, closer Luke Gregerson, for a four-out save. Going to your closer, your best reliever, in this situation shouldn’t be a radical move, and yet it remains a move that’s ripe for second guessing. Hinch’s logic behind the decision was simple, and it was sound: “I’ve watched the Royals come back a few times on us, and including 48 hours ago.” Gregorson got Salvador Perez to ground out to end the eighth, and closed things out in the ninth after serving up an Alex Gordon home run.
Props, too, to the home crowd. Their first postseason game at this bandbox since 2005, the ballpark, with the roof closed, was rocking. They were already roaring before first pitch, during a rousing, emotional pregame ceremony that included President George H.W. Bush in a wheelchair throwing out the first pitch. During the seventh inning stretch, they danced to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” (and on the very next pitch, Chris Carter launched a towering solo home run). When Gregerson recorded the final out, a strikeout of Cain with Ben Zobrist at first, you could feel the earth underneath your feet move.
The big narrative entering the game, of course, was Keuchel’s dominance in Houston, where he was 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA entering the game; though the Royals were one of the few teams this season that battered him around, for 10 hits and five runs at Kauffman Stadium, Keuchel was dominant against K.C. in a June start in Houston, with eight shutout innings in a 4-0 victory. He has been arguably the league’s most dominant starter—only David Price can make can make a Cy Young claim in the AL—but (despite the facial hair) he is far from your prototypical intimidator. Keuchel only once threw a fastball above 90 mph (during the season his average fastball was 89.6, according to Fangraphs), and yet against a team that was ranked 30th out of 30 major league teams in strikeouts, he struck out seven hitters over seven innings. On the night, Royals hitters struck out 10 times; Kansas City’s hitters did not strike out that many times in a game their entire postseason run last year.
Alcides Escobar opened the game with a first-pitch base hit, which gave us a glimpse, a preview, of the Royals’ approach on this afternoon: swing early, very early. After the game, you could only agree with the Royals when they said that there was not much they could do. “He threw a great game,” Royals manager Ned Yost said of Keuchel. “You got to take your hat off to him. At times with runners in scoring position we probably swung at some balls that probably wouldn’t have been called strikes, but that’s what good movement does. That’s what he does so well, is he changes speeds, he moves location, he moves it in, he moves it out, he speeds it up, he slows it down. I think he should be the Cy Young winner this year.”
Because this was the game in the series you assumed the Astros would win with Keuchel on the mound, there was a bit of a sense that Houston held serve in Game 3. But with Lance McCullers, who sports an 1.86 ERA in 10 home starts, set to face Yordano Ventura in Game 4, the Royals are by no means a clear favorite in a must-win game.
When reporters filed into the Astros clubhouse after the game, the fog from the clubhouse smoke machine was still clearing, the lights still flashing: victory parties at Club Astros started becoming a tradition after wins earlier this season. Of course, there will be a much bigger party tomorrow afternoon if Houston wins Game 4 and takes its first playoff series in 11 years.
The Astros are one win from the ALCS. Yes, that’s a sentence that feels as strange to type as it is to gaze at.