Rangers beat Astros 14-3, now lead AL West by 1.5 games. Rangers are 11-4 vs Astros this season, including 6 straight wins.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 17, 2015
I'll say this: The Houston Astros can't wait to get home.
In the biggest game the franchise has played since losing the 2005 World Series, they had staff ace Dallas Keuchel on the mound, hoping to reclaim first place from the surging Texas Rangers. This 10-game road trip hadn't gone well: The Astros started it with a three-game lead in the American League West but lost two of three to the Oakland Athletics. They then lost two of three to the Los Angeles Angels, salvaging the finale with a dramatic five-run rally in the ninth. They next lost the first two against the Rangers.
For all the MVP talk about Mike Trout and then Josh Donaldson, Keuchel has been ignored in the discussion. Where would the Astros be without him? The 27-year-old left-hander entered the game 17-7, leading the American League in ERA, wins and innings pitched. He's been a workhorse, he's dominated, he's saved the bullpen. In 29 starts, he'd gone at least six innings each outing and allowed five runs just twice and two runs or fewer 18 times. If WAR is your cup of tea, his 7.2 WAR wasn't far behind Donaldson's and Trout's 8.0 on the AL leaderboard.
Then came the bottom of the first inning Wednesday night in Arlington before 34,483, including an estimated walk-up crowd of 6,800. Some of those fans were still loading up at the concession stands as Keuchel, wearing the Astros' bright orange road jersey, went to work.
Delino DeShields Jr. reached on an infield single in the third base-shortstop hole.
Shin-Soo Choo, who leads the AL in on-base percentage since the All-Star break but struggles against left-handers, got ahead in the count 2-1 and then hit a little blooper to left field for a single. Colby Rasmus, playing pretty deep, didn't get the best read on the ball.
Adrian Beltre worked the count full before flying out.
Prince Fielder, swinging at the first pitch, grounded a sinker into right field past a diving Chris Carter for an RBI single.
Mike Napoli then lined a 1-1 fastball into the first row of bleachers in right-center for a three-run homer. If it was supposed to be a two-seamer, it didn't sink. It was right down the middle.
Mitch Moreland grounded out.
Elvis Andrus doubled on an 0-1 cutter, the ball going off the glove of third baseman Marwin Gonzalez.
Rougned Odor, the fourth left-handed batter of the inning, smacked a two-run homer to right field off a 1-0 fastball. The pitch? Another one right down the middle.
Keuchel got out of the inning, but the final tally read 31 pitches, six runs, two home runs. There was some bad luck -- the hits by DeShields, Choo, Fielder and Andrus all could have been outs on a different day -- but the two home runs came on terrible pitches, middle-middle. The rout was on.
Keuchel would give up 11 hits and nine runs in 4⅓ innings, including another home run -- this time to Fielder, who went 3-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs. Martin Perez scattered nine hits over seven innings but allowed just one run. Napoli, playing left field again due to manager Jeff Banister's desire to get another bat in the lineup, threw Hank Conger out at third base. The Rangers finished with 16 hits in a 14-3 victory.
"I felt like I had command of two of the four pitches, and I feel like any time I can go out and have command of two pitches, I feel like I'm going to at least give the team a chance to win," Keuchel told reporters after the game. "That just didn't happen today, and that's frustrating."
Keuchel's ERA soared to 2.56 and now the AL Cy Young Award is a little more up for grabs, reminiscent of late last season, when Felix Hernandez gave up eight runs to Toronto in a big game. He was edged out by Corey Kluber in the Cy Young voting. David Price now leads the AL in ERA.
More importantly, the Rangers now hold a 1½-game lead over the Astros. The fourth game of the series is Thursday night, an interesting contrast with hard-throwing rookie Lance McCullers going for Houston and crafty veteran Colby Lewis starting for Texas. Lewis has pitched in many big games, including in the World Series. McCullers was pitching last season in Lancaster, California.
This is what makes September baseball so much fun, though. It doesn't matter that McCullers is a rookie with barely 100 major league innings under his belt; he's certainly capable of throwing a big game. Keuchel might be the best pitcher in the American League this season, but the only thing that matters now is what you do today.
After Thursday's game, the Astros head home for a nine-game homestand against the A's, Angels and Rangers. They have the worst road record in the AL but have the best home record. While it may now feel like the Rangers are going to win the AL West, I think we've learned that maybe we should stay away from predictions. After all, who saw the Rangers climbing out of an eight-game deficit in August to enter the final 17 games of the season in first place?