Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel walks to the dugout after completing the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Sunday, May 22, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Eric Christian Smith
May 23, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel is getting plenty of advice as he goes through his worst stretch since breaking into the majors in 2012.

Houston's ace listens to all of it but knows what he must do.

''I've got to be better at commanding the baseball,'' he said simply.

Keuchel has followed up his 20-win season with a difficult start. He's dropped five straight decisions in his longest skid since losing seven in a row as a rookie in 2012. He posted a career-low 2.48 ERA last season but has seen that number balloon to 5.92 while he's gone just 2-6 in 10 starts this year.

Keuchel is a pitcher who relies heavily on groundball outs. But early this season, his inability to throw strikes early in the count led to an inordinate number of walks and contributed to his struggles. He's walked 26 batters this season after issuing just 51 free passes in 33 games a year ago.

His velocity has also dipped in 2016, with his average fastball speed falling from 89.6 mph last year to just 88.3 this season.

Manager A.J. Hinch said the easy answer for how to get Keuchel back on track is for him to throw more strikes on pitch one. That, Hinch believes, will come when he gets his mechanics back to normal.

''Getting his delivery lined up to getting down the hill in the same way every pitch,'' Hinch said. ''He's landing in a couple different spots. His body momentum's coming down the hill a little inconsistently, which changes his release point ever so slightly, and when that happens the command and control goes off.''

Keuchel said some of his bad starts in April may have come because he didn't feel good physically. He believes that stemmed from doing too much in between starts in the wake of pitching a career-high 232 innings last year, which ranked second in the majors.

''Instead of helping me get ready for the next start, it was kind of taking away from what I was going to do and in turn that's kind of messed me up a little bit,'' Keuchel said. ''So I backed off a little bit, worked a little bit smarter the last three weeks in between and my body has responded a lot better. My velocity is back up a little bit and my pitches are a lot more crisp.''

Now that he's feeling better, Keuchel is frustrated that the results haven't improved. But he's optimistic that things will get better soon now that he's where he wants to be physically.

Keuchel has the highest ERA in a struggling rotation, and the Astros have followed up 2015's playoff trip by limping to a 17-28 record, which is the second-worst mark in the AL.

''The frustrating part about it is he's a good pitcher, and I don't think he's enjoying the kind of success that he deserves,'' Hinch said. ''I don't like looking up there and seeing our best guy struggle. Want to see him get a win, want to get us a win so we can get some momentum going and we can feel pretty good coming to the ballpark.''

Keuchel has a reputation as a perfectionist, and he's certainly bothered by this tough stretch. But he's been careful to keep a positive attitude, not just for himself, but for his teammates.

''I have to do it because other guys look toward me to kind of carry that torch for the pitching staff,'' he said. ''If they see me kind of faltering and getting down on myself, it will rub off on other guys. We're all going to have bad starts. Hitters are going to have slumps, but it's the most consistent guys that get the job done, and I know I'm one of the most consistent guys in the league, so it's just a matter of time for me to find it.''

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