Dominant Dallas Keuchel helps Astros climb atop the AL West

HOUSTON (AP) Dallas Keuchel had scarcely more than a five o'clock shadow when he made his major league debut in 2012.

Houston's ace has since turned his beard into one of the more recognizable in sports, rivaling that of Houston Rockets star James Harden in an unusual one-two punch for this city. Like his beard, Keuchel's popularity has grown, too, as he has helped the long-suffering Astros take the lead in the American League West.

There's Keuchel's Korner, a section of the ballpark dedicated to the left-hander, where at each of his home starts, $35 buys a game ticket, a fake beard, a shirt with a the words ''Go Beard or Go Home'' and a cartoon depiction of his whiskers.

But there is something you should know about his famous face adornment: Unlike Harden, Keuchel isn't committed to keeping the beard.

''I would definitely cut it off,'' he told The Associated Press in an interview where he often absentmindedly stroked the beard.

Shearing it would have to mean something. He's thought about how he could do it and who could be helped with the move. His top choice would be to devise a plan where getting rid of it could raise money for charity, possibly in the fight against Alzheimer's.

He's keenly interested in Alzheimer's research. His 81-year-old grandfather, Joseph Keuchel, died in September after a battle with the disease. The elder Keuchel was instrumental in the 27-year-old's early baseball career, always bragging about his grandson and helping to fund trips to games and tournaments in his youth.

''He was somebody that was very influential in my life,'' Keuchel said. ''And somebody that I will never forget.''

His bright eyes take on a momentary tinge of sadness as he recounts watching his grandfather, a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, succumb to the illness. Keuchel felt helpless.

''It was difficult, but at the same time it's one of those things where there was nothing I could possibly do to reverse it,'' he said.

So if someone stepped up with a ''large amount of money'' to go to an Alzheimer's charity, he'd have no qualms about a transition to clean-shaven Keuchel.

''It's something that I would like to see a lot more awareness of and that's why I would be willing to cut my beard,'' he said. ''Hopefully one of these days ... we can find a cure for it.''

His attention to detail in thinking this through illustrates one of the reasons why Keuchel is such a dominant pitcher. The Oklahoma native is a perfectionist - from how agonizes over every pitch to his perfectly organized closet featuring a prized Jordan collection.

That quality has helped him to 12 wins, which is tied for the AL lead, and a 2.32 ERA, ranking third in the AL.

Manager A.J. Hinch jokingly called it the ''stubbornness of being great'' before getting serious.

''He can go three up and three down and not be satisfied,'' Hinch said. ''That happens routinely for him.''

Keuchel chuckles when asked about his perfectionism.

''It's kind of borderline ridiculous,'' he said. ''I'm always striving to be the best. When I see guys performing like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine or John Smoltz, it seemed to me that those guys were just perfect pitchers and I've always wanted to be like them. And so with that I do everything I possibly can in between my start days to be as perfect as possible.''

Keuchel went 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA in 16 starts in 2012, the highlight of which was a complete game in his second major league outing. He never lacked confidence and at the time believed he was ready to be in the big leagues. The luxury of time has shown him that that may have not been the case.

''That whole year I was kind of up and down ... it was a roller coaster,'' he said. ''When I'm looking back at my short career now, I feel like I was a minor league pitcher being lucky enough to be in the big leagues, I honestly didn't belong. There was a lot of stuff that I needed to clean up.''

He made his first opening day roster last season by earning the fifth spot in Houston's rotation. That, he says, was the shot in the arm needed to propel him to the next level.

Last season he went 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA and five complete games and picked up his first Gold Glove. Once he realized he was capable of retiring the game's most elite hitters there was no stopping him.

''Just to get over that mental hump was probably the biggest thing,'' he said. ''And once you do that I felt like I was almost on a jet just taking off.''

Keuchel takes pride in his ascension to top-tier starter and appreciates the progress he's made. But he'd consider this season all but a failure if his work doesn't help Houston to the postseason for the first time since they were swept by the White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

''Because I would honestly feel like I didn't do enough,'' he said. ''I don't play this game for individual achievements. They're nice, but at the end of the day I want a World Series ring or I want multiples.''

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