HOUSTON -- Dallas Keuchel had already established himself as the real deal in baseball circles when he embraced the moment and pitched the Houston Astros over the New York Yankees in the 2015 American League wild-card game.
Keuchel logged a 20-8 record that season, led the league in innings pitched, pocketed a Gold Glove and an All-Star Game appearance, and went on to beat out David Price for the Cy Young Award in November. Still, it was something of a watershed achievement when he took the mound in a hostile environment at Yankee Stadium and dazzled one of baseball's iconic franchises over six shutout innings in a 3-0 Astros victory.
The high stakes of a wild-card game can wreak havoc on a pitcher's nerves -- as evidenced by the combined 18.40 ERA from 2017 wild-card starters Luis Severino, Ervin Santana, Zack Greinke and Jon Gray. Keuchel, then 27, enhanced his bona fides when he toyed with the Yankees in a one-and-done situation with so little margin for error.
"At that point, I was just trying to get myself better, and a lot of the guys would say the same thing," Keuchel said Thursday from Minute Maid Park. "That win in the wild-card game wasn't just special for me and the validation [it brought]. It was special for everybody to go into New York and play that well. Now we look back on it, and it's probably one of the most magical times that I'll have in my career. It's something I'll never forget, for sure."
Two years later, Keuchel is back, craggy beard and all, looking to create more warm postseason memories in a much more nurturing environment.
The Astros will pose a major challenge for the Yankees, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Cleveland and advance to the American League Championship Series. Astros manager A.J. Hinch will send out Keuchel against Masahiro Tanaka in Game 1 on Friday, followed by a high-octane special between Justin Verlander and Severino on Saturday.
While the Astros are known more for their offensive prowess than their pitching acumen, they'll throw a formidable and artistically contrasting duo against the Yankees in Games 1 and 2 in Houston.
Verlander remains the definitive power pitcher at age 34. He threw his fastball a healthy 58 percent of the time this season and clocked in with the eighth-highest average velocity in the majors at 95.2 mph, according to FanGraphs. Keuchel slots in at a more pedestrian 88.7 mph, which puts him at the Zach Davies-Jason Vargas end of the equation. Verlander and Keuchel have forged a mutual bond through competitiveness and a natural inclination to talk shop.
"We might have polar [opposite] pitching tendencies, but the way our minds work is very similar," Keuchel said. "I've bounced hundreds of questions off him already, and he would probably say the same thing. And it's just been a joy to kind of talk pitching in the dugout. He is really that ultra-veteran guy who has done everything besides win a World Series. So that was one of the things that appealed to him before he came over here.
"I said, 'Hey, your chances of winning a World Series are much greater coming over here than staying with Detroit.' And that was the honest truth, and I think that really resonated with him."
This season has been a mixed bag of success and frustration for Keuchel. He missed almost two months in June and July because of a neck injury, and he critiqued some key moments in the Astros' season in his typically forthright manner. After general manager Jeff Luhnow failed to swing an impact trade by the July 31 deadline, Keuchel and outfielder Josh Reddick publicly expressed their displeasure. "Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement," Keuchel said at the time.
Luhnow redeemed himself by adding Verlander in a deal for three minor leaguers on Aug. 31, and Keuchel immediately benefited from the move. The two pitchers provide disparate looks that can upset an opposing lineup's timing and equilibrium. Beyond that, they push each other in the way elite starters so often do.
"What Verlander has done for our team, and for Dallas in particular, is just raise the standard and the sight line of where the goals are," Hinch said. "Verlander is a lot about competitiveness, a lot about preparation and being excellent. He blended in perfectly with his personality. And his credentials when he walks through the room just immediately raised the bar for a team that already had a pretty high bar.
"Dallas was very outspoken in July, in case you missed it. He wanted a partner. And now he's got a partner in crime. He's got a one-two punch. All of that, I think, was positive energy towards where we're at today."
In the Yankees' relatively limited exposure to Keuchel through the years, they've seen the damage he can inflict with fastball command and an effective slider, curveball and changeup. In six career starts against New York, Keuchel is 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA and a 45 strikeouts to six walks. He is also coming off 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball against Boston in the AL Division Series, so the buildup to Game 1 suggests he's in a good place right now.
When Keuchel beat the Yankees in that wild-card game two years ago, Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran went a combined 1-for-12, with a single as the only hit. Now A-Rod is doing television work and dating Jennifer Lopez, and Beltran and McCann are supporting Keuchel as veteran members of the roster in Houston.
Lineups and narratives change with time, but there's a purity to Keuchel's approach that transcends radar gun readings and brute force.
"There's an artistry to how Dallas pitches," Hinch said. "There's a competitiveness between him and the hitter. Some people will call it a cat-and-mouse game. He's a tremendous competitor. He's very smart on the mound. He's very under control while intense. And with any game plan, he can adjust on the fly and continue to get outs."
The Astros' success or failure in defending home turf in Game 1 of the ALCS will hinge on Keuchel's ability to replicate history. Based on everything his manager and his teammates know about him, they'll take their chances.