There was one tense moment in Dallas Keuchel's third career shutout: With the Houston Astros leading the New York Yankees 4-0 with two outs in the top of the ninth, the Yankees loaded with the bases with a single, a walk and a single, suddenly bringing the tying run to the plate. Astros manager A.J. Hinch did a quick little lap around the dugout but left in his ace. Kuechel's 116th pitch was an 0-1 changeup to Jose Pirela that induced a 5-4 forceout to end it.
It's that changeup that has keyed Keuchel's development into one of baseball's best starters over the past two seasons, a pitch that gives Keuchel a weapon against right-handers, a reason he's now 9-3 with a 2.17 ERA and a sure bet to make his first All-Star team. Check out how batters have fared against him the past three seasons:
2013: .300/.315/.511, 12.0 percent K rate
2014: .279/.313/.385, 15.6 percent K rate
2015: .203/.225/.362, 26.8 percent K rate
Keuchel fanned a career-high 12 batters against the Yankees, just the second time in his career he has reached double digits. Strikeouts usually aren't his game; groundballs are. He has the second-highest groundball rate of any starter in the majors. Keuchel certainly benefited from a big zone from umpire Joe West. Give a guy like Keuchel an extra inch or two and good luck. Still, this is the ace who has carried the Houston pitching staff all season, and Hinch's willingness to let Keuchel complete the game shows how much trust he has in him.
The first-place Astros are an interesting case. They're 43-32, the second-most wins in the majors, and hold a five-game lead over the Angels and Rangers, yet Keuchel is the only guy having a monster season and is arguably the team's only All-Star. Setup reliever Will Harris does have a 0.78 ERA in 34.1 innings while holding opponents to a microscopic .097 average. But go through the roster: Nobody is having a career year.
Jose Altuve? He's not having a great season. After a blistering start with a .367 mark in April, he's struggled since, although he did get three hits on Thursday to raise his season line to .292/.332/.399. But that's well below his league-leading .341 average of last season.
Chris Carter? He mashed 37 home runs in 2014. He's hitting .198 with 12 home runs this season.
Luis Valbuena? Sure, he's hit a surprising 19 home runs, but that comes with a .199 average and .279 OBP.
Collin McHugh? After a strong 2014, he was supposed to be the solid No. 2 behind Keuchel. He's 8-3 but has a 4.80 ERA.
George Springer? He's hitting .270/.366/.465, an improvement over his rookie season, but we expected some improvement. He's good -- and maybe still getting better -- and while he's certainly an All-Star candidate, he's not a lock to make it.
Scott Feldman and Roberto Hernandez? The veteran starters are currently on the DL and banished to the bullpen. Both had ERAs close to 5.00 with the Astros now relying on rookies Lance McCullers Jr. and Vincent Velasquez -- two pitchers with a combined 55 innings above Class A -- in the rotation.
In other words, there's nothing here that screams out that the Astros are a fluke. They've gotten solid production from the likes of Colby Rasmus and rookie outfielder Preston Tucker, and Evan Gattis has made the most of his .228 average by driving in 43 runs. The Astros are 38-1 when leading after eight innings, so the bullpen has been solid.
If you think about it, this team is a reminder that it doesn't take a string of ripoff trades or lucky acquisitions to rebuild. Sure, you wouldn't have projected Keuchel's career path two years ago, but general manager Jeff Luhnow's construction job has been more steady than miraculous.
It also hasn't been mistake-free. The Astros waived J.D. Martinez last spring and he's hit .298/.347/.541 with the Tigers, which would make for a nice cleanup hitter in Houston; they drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant, a decision they'll regret for years; they lost Delino DeShields Jr. -- who's having a solid season with the Rangers -- in the Rule 5 draft last offseason; they could have taken Carlos Rodon or Kyle Schwarber over Brady Aiken with the first pick last year and already have a major leaguer.
So you don't have to make all the right moves to rebuild. And remember that Carlos Correa just recently arrived; he better enjoy his All-Star break this year because it's the last one he's going to have for a long time.
Will the Astros win the West? I tweeted earlier today that the A's will win. OK, I was a having a little fun, although I do think the A's can climb back into it. FanGraphs has the Astros with a 58 percent chance to win the division, with the Angels next at 24 percent. In other words: Even without any career seasons, the Astros are a good club whose future has arrived in 2015.