ARLINGTON, Texas -- A year ago, Dallas Keuchel was one of baseball’s best pitchers, a 20-game winner, an All-Star and eventually the American League Cy Young Award winner.
These days, he’s just a guy.
That’s really all you need to know about why the Houston Astros find themselves nine games out of first place in the AL West after the Texas Rangers beat them again Tuesday night, 4-3, at Globe Life Park.
None of us should be surprised. Texas has beaten Houston 12 straight times in Arlington, counting last season, and they’ve won each of their eight games against the Astros this season. The Rangers (36-22) have the AL’s best record, have won five consecutive games and lead the second-place Seattle Mariners by 4.5 games
Keuchel went 20-8 for the Astros with a 2.48 ERA last season. He allowed 185 hits in 232 innings as Houston finished second in the AL West and advanced to the American League Division Series before losing in five games to the Kansas City Royals.
They were supposed to build off of last season. This was supposed to be their year. Instead, Keuchel has faltered. He's 3-8 with a 5.44 ERA and the Astros are languishing in third place because, try as they might, they can’t figure out how to beat the Rangers.
They’ve blown early leads, like they did Tuesday, and late leads. They’ve lost blowouts and five one-run games. Even relief pitcher Ken Giles' trash-talking after Monday’s loss, which appeared on a video board in the Rangers' clubhouse, couldn’t inspire Houston to win.
Actually, they had plenty of opportunities to end their losing streak against the Rangers, but the Astros did what bad teams tend to do -- they found ways to lose instead of ways to win.
After all, they had the leadoff hitter on five different times and never scored. They led 2-0 after the second inning when Carlos Gomez, a .190 hitter, hit his second homer of the season, but they didn't score again until the ninth inning.
Cole Hamels, the Rangers’ starter, walked four, but none of them scored, in part because the Astros hit into three double plays.
A baserunning error in the seventh inning cost Houston an opportunity to take a one-run lead. Marwin Gonzalez doubled to left and should have scored on Tyler White's one-out single to center. Gonzalez, though, didn’t know where shortstop Elvis Andrus was playing, so he took two steps toward second base instead of heading to third as the ball went into center field. By the time he reached third base it was too late to try to score. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, hit into a double play to end the inning. Houston left the tying run on third base in the ninth inning.
“I think the psychological edge comes from within,” center fielder Ian Desmond said of the Rangers' winning streak over Houston. “You worry about yourself. You worry about your at-bats. You worry about executing your pitches. You worry about your job. When everyone on the team worries about taking care of their role, you get the product you're seeing right now.
“When everyone takes care of themselves, like you’re seeing now, you get a really good Texas Rangers team.”
Jurickson Profar, baseball’s No.1 prospect three years ago, turned in a flawless performance in his debut at first base after just two 30-minute practice sessions.
Twice he did the splits stretching to catch the ball, and he made a nice play in the second inning when he moved quickly to his right to knock down Colby Rasmus' wicked line drive. He scurried after the ball, grabbed it and flipped it to Hamels for the out.
“He looked pretty athletic,” manager Jeff Banister said with a smile. “He looked like a shortstop playing first base. He had a nice stretch. He looked calm; the crossover on a hard-hit ball and he made a great feed to Cole. He looked like he’d been over there before. He looked like he’d been practicing.”
And as you would expect with his recent play, Profar started the winning rally in the bottom of the eighth when he slapped a single off Keuchel to center with one out. Keuchel allowed 10 hits, two homers and struck out eight in 7 1/3 innings.
Desmond followed with a homer to center on a changeup that was down and away but still caught too much of the plate.
Profar, a middle infielder by trade, played first base because Banister wants his bat in the lineup, as first baseman Mitch Moreland and designated Prince Fielder are hitting a combined .191 with nine homers and 51 RBIs. Profar, who has started at designated hitter and first base the past two games, collected two more hits -- already his sixth multihit game -- and scored a run.
Pretty good for a dude who was called up from Triple-A just 11 games ago. No one had more fun. Profar smiled constantly, and when he wasn’t smiling, he was laughing.
“I’m just up here having fun,” he said. “I told y’all that’s what I was going to do. It’s fun when you’re winning.”
And it’s no fun when you’re losing. Keuchel and the Astros have plenty of time to contend in the AL West, but it’s not going to happen if they can’t figure out how to beat the Rangers.