Dallas Keuchel has been the best pitcher in the American League in 2015, leading the league in ERA, WAR, innings and wins. He has been remarkably consistent, going at least six innings in every start and allowing three runs or fewer in 24 of 29 outings.
Now it's time to show he can be a big-game pitcher.
The Houston Astros are reeling a bit. After the Texas Rangers took the first two games of the big Lone Star showdown series, the Rangers are now in first place for the first time all season and the Astros are out of first place for the first time since July 26. The Rangers are 30-15 since late July, feeling good about themselves, pulling out tight ballgames and suddenly have that team of destiny look. The Astros haven't won two games in a row since Aug. 25-26, have lost 11 of their past 17 games and destiny's first-half darlings look more like the .500 team they've been most of the season.
So it's time for the ace to deliver as he has all season. Keuchel is the clear front-runner in the American League Cy Young race. At 7.1 WAR, he has a sizable edge over Sonny Gray (5.8) and David Price (5.7). He's also more of a strikeout pitcher than he gets credited for, ranking fifth in the AL in total K's and eighth in strikeout percentage. Sure, Chris Sale has an insane K rate and actually has a slight edge over Keuchel in FanGraphs WAR, 6.0 to 5.8. I ain't buying it. Sale has allowed 22 more runs while pitching 19 fewer innings. It takes a lot of sabermetric machinations to push Sale over Keuchel.
On that line of reasoning, two reasons Keuchel has outperformed his Fielding Independent Pitching: (1) He has allowed only four stolen bases all season; (2) Since he has such a high percentage of groundballs, he gets double plays, fourth-most in the league. So you have a pitcher who strikes guys out and gets double plays. That, my friends, is the artistry Keuchel brings to the mound, even if his fastball doesn't burn the radar guns at 95 mph.
While Wednesday's outing obviously isn't a must-win game in the literal sense, you get the feeling that a lot is riding on it from the Astros' perspective. A two-game swing between going back up by half a game over the Rangers with a win or falling 1.5 games behind with a loss seems huge, especially if the Astros head into the series finale on Thursday staring at a potential sweep.
The game also comes at a time when everyone is questioning just how good the Astros actually are. As they built their lead in the AL West early in the summer, it appeared they'd win the division over the Angels; in the worst-case scenario, they'd win the wild card. Now they may win neither.
Keep in mind, however, that the Astros won 14 of 15 at one stretch in April into early May. That put their record at 18-7; since then, they're 2 games under .500. The Astros are the Mariners with one two-week hot stretch. In the past 10 seasons, 26 teams have gone 14-1 over a 15-game stretch (no team has won 15 in a row). Not surprisingly, all 26 teams finished above .500 (or, for the three teams to do so in 2015, are over .500). The Astros, however, are tied with the 2006 Red Sox for the worst winning percentage of those 26 teams at .531. That Boston team went 14-1 in late June/early July, but it gets a small asterisk: It all came during interleague play. The Red Sox went 16-2 that year against National League teams, so they were under .500 against the AL and finished 86-76.
Anyway, the point is that teams who go 14-1 are usually better than this Astros team. Of course, those games are in the bank so all the Astros have to do is win more games than the Rangers over these final 17 games.
There's still time for the Astros to regain their label as a team of destiny. It will help if Keuchel beats the Rangers. If he does that, he pretty much clinches the Cy Young Award and maybe helps a young, inexperienced team get some of its mojo back when it heads home for a nine-game homestand after this series.