In an era of hard and harder throwers, Keuchel, a left-hander with a House of David beard, is a throwback of another sort — a pitcher who cuts, fades and darts the ball in and out, living on the edges of the plate and rarely in the center of it. His fastball is a misnomer, barely eclipsing 90 miles per hour, but when it arrives it is accompanied by late, darting movement.
“He just lives on the corner,” Judge said. “He doesn’t miss his spot. If you go throughout the whole game, there wasn’t too many pitches over the heart of the plate and he just likes to live on the edges.”
And no matter whom the Yankees put in their lineup — only three hitters remained from the Yankees’ wild-card defeat two years ago — Keuchel baffles them.
On Friday night, rarely using his devastating changeup, he allowed four hits and one walk, and struck out a season-high 10 batters.
“He’s got so many plans out there,” said Correa, the Astros’ shortstop. “When Plan A is working, he sticks with it. When the sinker is moving and the gun is hitting 90, I know he’s going to be lights out.”
Keuchel said he could not pinpoint why he had so consistently thwarted the Yankees, but acknowledged getting fired up to pitch against them.
“It’s such a storied franchise and they have so much rich history that you almost don’t even have to get up for the game, you’re already up for it,” he said. “That’s what they bring. They have a lot of talented players, and this was supposed to be the bridge year for them and they weren’t supposed to be here. But they are because they are good and they are the Yankees.”
The Yankees’ best chance to get to Keuchel came in the fifth, when second baseman Jose Altuve uncharacteristically made a mistake to give New York an opening.
With Bird having led off the inning with a single, Altuve bobbled and booted Matt Holliday’s almost certain double-play grounder, leaving runners at first and second with none out. But Keuchel retired Todd Frazier on a soft liner to center and struck out Brett Gardner. That brought up Judge, who had walked and struck out in his first two at-bats.
Judge, who was 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts in the division series against Cleveland, lined a slider to left for a base hit, but Gonzalez charged and fired a one-hop strike to catcher Brian McCann, who slapped the tag on Bird just before he reached home plate with his feet-first slide. Gonzalez, the Astros’ super-utility player, carried so much momentum into the throw that he tumbled to the turf on his follow-through.
“When I rounded the bag, I saw Mac and he didn’t just give up on the play,” said Bird, referring to McCann, a former Yankees teammate. “I could tell there was going to be a throw, there was going to be a play. I just slid straight in.”
Asked if he had any regrets, Bird smiled.
“I’m too slow,” he said. “I wish I was a little faster.”
Though there seemed to be little doubt that Bird was out, Manager Joe Girardi — who had been upbraided for not challenging a call in the first round of the playoffs — used one of his two challenges, just in case.
“Well, we thought he was out, but God knows I’m not doing that again,” Girardi said of not passing up the chance for a review.
The next best chance for the Yankees came when Keuchel departed. Gardner drew a one-out walk against Chris Devinski in the top of the eighth, prompting Giles to enter. After Gardner advanced to second on a wild pitch, Judge grounded out to third. Gary Sanchez followed with a walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Ronald Torreyes.
That brought up Didi Gregorius, who hit two home runs in the Yankees’ series-clinching win over Cleveland. But after fouling off a pair of 0-2 sliders, Gregorius swung through another one in the dirt.
Masahiro Tanaka had the unfortunate task of opposing Keuchel, just as he did in the 3-0 wild-card defeat in 2015. Though Tanaka had an up-and-down season, he recently rounded into top form, striking out a career-high 15 in his final regular-season start and delivering seven shutout innings in a 1-0 Game 3 victory that had kept the Yankees alive against Cleveland.
Still, there had to be some trepidation about sending him against the Astros.
No team has punished Tanaka like the Astros over the course of his career. He entered Friday night winless in five starts against them and having allowed 22 runs in 23⅓ innings. In his only start against the Astros this season, Tanaka gave up eight runs — and four homers — and lasted just one and two-thirds innings, the worst start in his four seasons in New York.
“His slider is going to have to have good break, his split is going to have to have that good downward plane like it did his last two starts,” Girardi said before the game. “If he does that, he’s going to be able to compete.’’
The Astros were intent on hitting the ball up the middle, and though they hit the ball hard in the first three innings, they had little to show for it. Altuve, Gonzalez and Alex Bregman all hit liners that ended up in the glove of center fielder Aaron Hicks.
But in the fourth their approach was rewarded. With one out, Altuve hit a grounder up the middle that second baseman Starlin Castro backhanded, but Altuve beat the throw. Altuve then stole second and scored when Correa lined a 2-1 slider, which Tanaka left up, into left field to put the Astros ahead, 1-0.
Correa advanced to second on Gonzalez’s groundout, then scored when Gurriel lined a single up the middle to put the Astros ahead, 2-0. The pitch was a fastball that catcher Gary Sanchez wanted inside, but Tanaka left it over the outer half of the plate.
It was a rare mistake, but with Keuchel on the mound the Yankees can’t seem to afford any.