The Houston Astros made the playoffs behind, in large degree, a great year from Dallas Keuchel and a lot of home runs. They beat the New York Yankees in the wild-card game behind Dallas Keuchel and two home runs. Here are five key moments:
1. Dallas Keuchel gets Alex Rodriguez in the sixth inning.
Keuchel's command was a little off the first two innings, in which he threw 39 pitches, but he settled in, retired 10 in a row and was sitting at just 72 pitches through six innings. With the Astros up 2-0, Didi Gregorius led off the bottom of the sixth with a bouncer past a diving Jose Altuve, and a quiet Yankee Stadium came to life. After Keuchel fanned Brett Gardner -- for the third time -- on a big-breaking 1-2 slider and got Chris Young to hit into a 6-4 force play in which Carlos Correa ranged to his left, Carlos Beltran lined a single to center to bring up Alex Rodriguez with two on, two outs and Keuchel sitting at 86 pitches.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch went to the mound, and Chad Qualls was warming up in the bullpen. Remember, Keuchel was starting on three days' rest for the first time in his major league career. This is often the time of the game when playoff games are won or lost: the middle innings, before you get to your late-inning relievers, when the starter is going through the lineup a third time. Hinch decided to ride his Cy Young contender, even though A-Rod's OPS against left-handers is 120 points higher than his mark against righties. Keuchel threw a cutter, and A-Rod hit a soft pop fly to center field.
One reason for Keuchel's improvement the past couple years? Fastball command. Here is the OPS against his fastball since 2012: .921, .864, .679, .657. Keuchel's walk rate dropped from 12.7 to 7.3 percent with his fastball, and that helped set up his changeup and slider. He has also added the cutter from his rookie season in 2012. Altogether, Keuchel's command and nice pitch-framing from catcher Jason Castro might have helped Keuchel get a few extra calls from home-plate ump Eric Cooper -- according to Yankees fans on Twitter, at least. ESPN Stats & Info data report that of the 19 called strikes with Keuchel on the mound, five were out of the strike zone -- a miss rate of 26 percent, compared to the MLB average of 18 percent missed calls on called strikes. We're talking about one pitch above normal.
Also, our data say that of the 21 called strikes on the Astros, only 67 percent were actually strikes. So no whining, Yankees fans. Keuchel just had your number, all season and tonight. In 22 innings against the Yankees this year, he gave up zero runs.
Dallas Keuchel is first starter with a scoreless postseason start on 3 days rest since Josh Beckett in 2003. pic.twitter.com/AEfgek0u2F
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 7, 2015
Dallas Keuchel: 22 IP, 0 R, 28 K, 2 BB vs the Yankees this year (Including the regular season) pic.twitter.com/308uR5sz3f
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 7, 2015
Both home runs off Masahiro Tanaka came on first pitches. Rasmus led off the second on a fastball low and in. Catcher Brian McCann set up outside, but Tanaka pulled the pitch right into Rasmus' sweet spot. Rasmus crushed it to right-center. Gomez's home run also led off an inning, and it was off a hanging slider at the top of the zone in the fourth inning. Home runs were Tanaka's problem all season, as he gave up 25 in 154 innings. Among 141 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings this season, Tanaka ranked 134th in home runs allowed. And the Astros hit the second-most home runs in the majors. In retrospect, this was a pretty good matchup for the Astros. Gomez also entered the annals with one of the best bat flips you'll see in a playoff game.
Carlos Gomez: 3rd-longest HR of season ... Those 3 are his last 3 HR Longest: 433 against Angels (Jered Weaver) pic.twitter.com/UiyavNC01R
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 7, 2015
4. Joe Girardi goes to Dellin Betances.
Right move, bad result. Betances struggled the final month, as he walked 12 batters and gave up three home runs in 16 2/3 innings. Still, Girardi's game plan was to get the ball to Justin Wilson, Betances and Miller, hopefully with the lead. After Wilson pitched 1 1/3 innings, Betances entered in the seventh to face Chris Carter. He walked him on four pitches. Hinch pinch ran with Jonathan Villar, who stole second without Betances even looking at him. Good move by Hinch to get some speed in there, even though it was only the seventh inning, given that Betances allowed 17 steals in 84 innings. He's big and slow to the plate. With 16 position players on the roster for this game instead of 13 or 14, you can do things such as pinch run in the seventh inning and still have a defensive sub on the bench. With two outs, Jose Altuve blooped an RBI single to left field.
5. Hinch goes to the bullpen.
Keuchel was only at 87 pitches after retiring A-Rod, but in the seventh, Hinch went to the bullpen -- a bullpen that had the worst ERA in the majors in September. No problem. Tony Sipp, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson retired nine of the 10 batters they faced while giving up just one walk and no hits. Although the pen struggled the final month, keep in mind it was very good overall and finished sixth in ERA for the season. Thanks in part to a workhorse such as Keuchel, the pen is fresh, having ranked 28th in the majors in innings. Don't overlook this group as the Astros move on to face the Royals.
— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) October 7, 2015