Nemesis no more: Yankees finally conquer Dallas Keuchel

ByIan O'Connor via ESPN logo
Thursday, October 19, 2017

NEW YORK -- Of the opposing athletes who have inspired New Yorkers to feel an overwhelming sense of postseason doom, Michael Jordan remains the modern-day standard. Dallas Keuchel was never Michael Jordan, but this much was clear: When Keuchel threw the baseball, the New York Yankees often took swings that were reminiscent of Jordan's minor league cuts with the 1994 Birmingham Barons.

Let's face it, if Keuchel shaved off his "Duck Dynasty" beard, he might've been confused with Hal Steinbrenner. The Houston Astros starter owned the Yankees, after all, terminating their season in the 2015 wild-card game and silencing them last week in Game 1 of this American League Championship Series. In those two October games, Keuchel struck out 17 Yankees and allowed seven hits, two walks and no runs over 13 innings.

Keuchel wasn't just an opportunistic lefty who hit his spots. He was a fire-breathing dragon, and in the Bronx there didn't appear to be any dragon slayers in sight.

"To beat him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi had conceded, "we have to be close to perfect."

Guess what? His players went out and beat Dallas Keuchel, and they didn't need to be close to perfect. They just needed to be smart, patient and completely connected to a Yankee Stadium crowd that has time-traveled itself back to a time and place when the old Stadium, in the '90s, was as forbidding to visiting antagonists as the Roman Colosseum.

On the eve of his Game 5 start, Keuchel dared New Yorkers to be as loud as they are in Times Square on New Year's Eve. He spoke of enjoying the boos he heard during introductions before Game 3, referred to the Yankees as "the Evil Empire" without clearing it with Boston rights holders and said the venomous sound from all corners of the Bronx "makes you feel good just because you're doing your job correctly."

Keuchel didn't feel so good Wednesday night when he exited stage left in the fifth inning after doing his job incorrectly, after watching Masahiro Tanaka make him look like a hopeless amateur. The man who had surrendered seven earned runs against the Yankees in 57 2/3 career innings would be charged with giving them four runs in 4 2/3 innings in a devastating 5-0 defeat that left the Astros down 3-2 in the series and dangling by a thread.

The Stadium was as loud as Keuchel wanted it to be before, during and after his unceremonious departure. "I haven't seen anything like it in major league baseball since I've been here," said Chase Headley, who had two of the seven hits against Keuchel. "Reminds me of college football games. They're going crazy the entire game. It's a huge advantage for us."

The Yankees are 6-0 in the Bronx in the postseason, half of those victories coming at Houston's expense. They are one game away from beating a second straight opponent that won over 100 regular-season games. The Yankees knocked around Keuchel on Wednesday night the way they knocked around Cleveland's Corey Kluber in the American League Division Series.

"Keuchel doesn't lay very many eggs," Girardi said.

He just laid an awfully big one at the worst possible time. The Astros were psychologically scarred by the Yankees' comeback in Game 4 and by the sudden bolts of thunder shooting off the bats of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. The Astros desperately needed their starter to put Judge and Sanchez back to sleep, but instead, Keuchel allowed both sluggers to drive in runs and to make the Stadium shake to its core.

In the winners' locker room afterward, Todd Frazier explained the tweaked approach to Keuchel. "I think basically what we did was we looked middle of the plate," he said. The third baseman said that Keuchel's cutter and two-seamer move so much, a batter can't go after either if it's starting on the outside or inside third of the plate. But the Yankees' success wasn't only about looking at film and adjustments made in the cage. Frazier called Keuchel's pinstriped dominance "a big challenge" that the Yankees were driven to meet.

"We heard about that the whole time," he said, "and I'm just glad we got to him and we got him out of there."

The Yankees would have to be considered unstoppable now, right? The Astros just walked into a Bronx buzzsaw and left the building in a million tiny pieces. They just watched New York's starters advance their surprising run of dominance. They just watched their own starter, a man with a career 1.09 ERA against the Yanks, get bum-rushed out of town.

"Any time you break through against a pitcher or a team that's really had your number," Headley said, "you can take a lot of confidence away from that."

But there are a few notes of caution to consider. For one, Houston manager A.J. Hinch reminded everyone that the home team has won all five games this series. "If that trend continues," Hinch said, "we'll be in pretty good shape."

For two, the last time the Yankees had three straight magical home games like these at a postseason opponent that arrived in the Bronx with a 2-0 series lead, they lost Games 6 and 7 of the 2001 World Series in the Arizona Diamondbacks' ballpark. Any Yankees fan who watched both trios of home games can tell you he or she had the same no-way-we're-losing-now feeling.

Those Diamondbacks had Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson waiting for the Yanks. These Astros have Justin Verlander and, well, we'll see. Postseason baseball is a wild and crazy animal. Trying to tame it with a prediction of a sure Yankee triumph could be hazardous to the forecaster's health.

But if nothing else, the Yankees will never again have to hear about Keuchel's dominance over them. The Astros' ace was so sure of himself before Game 5, he poked fun at frustrated New Yorkers who played nice with him to earn a few minutes of his time. He said they called out to him, "Keuchel, you're the best pitcher ever. Can I get your autograph?"

They weren't calling him the best pitcher ever Wednesday night. Keuchel couldn't match up to the ultimate New York crusher, Michael Jordan, who to this day still constantly mocks Patrick Ewing about all the times he broke the Knicks' hearts. ("He's got six rings and I have none," Ewing said, "so I just let him trash talk.")

The Yankees are trash-talk proof. They have 27 rings and stand as a serious threat to possibly attain No. 28 with Girardi leading them. The manager keeps talking up the fans in this postseason, keeps saying they're bringing him back to his playing days as a contributor to the Jeter-Rivera-Torre dynasty.

"The jumping up and down in the stands, in the outfield," Girardi said. "People standing the whole time. The pounding on the path in the outfield. The liquids flying in the stands. Those are good memories for me."

The memories were sweeter when this Game 5 takedown of Keuchel was complete. The Yankees just destroyed their destroyer, and it felt like they deserved some kind of trophy for that.

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