LAST YEAR'S AMERICAN League Cy Young Award winner toes the rubber on a chilly night in the visitor's bullpen at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. He blows into his left fist, takes a deep breath and delivers a pitch to his awaiting catcher. He bounces it.
"You suck!" someone in the right-field stands yells at Dallas Keuchel, the Houston Astros ace.
Keuchel pays the man no regard, just focuses on Jason Castro's mitt. He throws another pitch. Wide.
"Ball!" someone else yells.
While the haranguing might be typical among visiting pitchers at major league ballparks across North America, Keuchel is mired in what could become the worst season of his five-year career. Plagued by mechanical flaws in his pitching delivery, hampered by reduced velocity and command issues, the 28-year-old finds himself in an unfamiliar position for a man expected to be among the American League's best. On this Tuesday night, Keuchel's statistics flash on the scoreboard: 2-5, 5.58 ERA, 1.60 WHIP. At this moment, his Astros -- once the trendy favorite to win it all this season -- have one of the worst records in Major League Baseball and are battling for the bottom slot of an exceptionally weak American League West. If there's an Exhibit A for Houston's struggles this season, here he is.
Keuchel pipes one to Castro. "Time him up! Time him up!"
There is no player more important to this Houston team than the man on the mound right now. As Keuchel goes, so go the Astros. On their playoff run last season, Houston won 23 of the 33 games Keuchel started, a .696 winning percentage. In games Keuchel didn't pitch, Houston was just 63-66. At this moment in Chicago, the Astros are 15-24 -- and 2-8 when Keuchel starts. Keuchel knows it. The guys in the dugout know it. If Houston's stopper is on, good things happen. If not ...
... low and wide to the left.
"That's what a 5 ERA looks like!"
Keuchel asks his pitching coach, Brent Strom, how much time he has left to warm up. Strom looks at his watch. Four-and-a-half minutes.
Four-and-a-half minutes of throws, of this abuse. Four-and-a-half minutes until he gets another chance to set his season right. Four-and-a-half minutes until he gets his chance to change the Astros' fortunes.
LESS THAN A week earlier, the afternoon following a disastrous start in which he pitched six innings and surrendered a season-high eight runs, gave up two home runs and allowed three walks to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway (ironically, it was the best he'd felt so far this season), Keuchel acknowledged the whispers among the media, the shouts among the fans. "Nobody is more frustrated than me right now," he said. Still, he had his team to consider -- one that had yet to put together one of those all-around games that had become so ubiquitous in the previous season. "The last thing people want to see in the clubhouse is me with my head in the garbage can. I'm not writing this season off. I can't afford to do that."
His early years in the majors were formidable. Poor starts would frustrate him, tug at his confidence, especially those first two years, in 2012 and 2013. "I used to let it eat at me," he says. He'd tell hitters they were lucky. If they were slumping, at least they had tomorrow to work out of it. He had to sit on a bad outing for four days. He went 6-10 in 2013, with a 5.15 ERA and a .297 batting average against him, but he also logged 150 innings for a Houston team that lost 111 games. He traded losses for experience. "He's one of the hardest workers I've been around," says Castro, who has been with Keuchel since 2012.
Hardly a fire-balling lefty -- his highest average fastball velocity was just 90.7 mph back in 2013 -- Keuchel came to rely on command, on hitting spots with devastating accuracy. "I am where I am because of changes," Keuchel says. "It's a constant evolution." He dumped his curveball. He pounded hitters with his slider and his sinker. Keuchel's strikeout-to-walk rate steadily climbed: from 2.37 in 2013 to 3.04 in 2014 to 4.24 last season.
Houston had found its ace. After the improbability of last season -- when the team went 86-76, beat the Yankees in the wild-card matchup but lost to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in a five-game divisional series -- this was supposed to be a year of goals achieved. Long a doormat of both leagues, Houston had built itself with solid drafts and shrewd deals. Baseball's rebirth in south Texas now includes some of the game's youngest, and most exciting, talent. There's 26-year-old All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve; 26-year-old, power-hitting right fielder George Springer; 21-year-old rookie-of-the-year shortstop Carlos Correa. In them, it's imagined, are multiple playoff berths, championships, All-Stars, potential most valuable players.
These days, though, Houston looks less like the superstar-laden, perennial playoff contender it was supposed to become, and Keuchel less like the man who went 20-8 last year with a 2.48 ERA. Heading into today, off a five-game win streak, the Astros are 25-29, 6.5 games behind the Rangers. Stepping into their world is to take a peek into one of baseball's most confounding clubhouses. If opponents are looking for a tell, hoping for a locker room in disarray, this isn't the place. Still, there's a palpable sense of confusion, of disbelief, as if the numbers this season are incorrect.
"I believe we're going to be good," Altuve says. "We're going to start from today, and everything is going to go back to normal. It's too early for us to panic."
"We're not planning to fail," Springer says.
"Right now, it's a grind for us," Keuchel says. "We've got too much talent. We have to move on. As much as I want to dwell on my own undoing, I have to move forward. That's the way baseball works."
The team is fond of pointing out that the Rangers, which won the AL West last year by two games over the Astros, were well below .500 in mid-May and nearly 10 games out of first place. So, too, was Toronto, which was 23-29 on June 1 but finished with 93 wins and came within two games of appearing in the World Series. Both teams put together winning streaks. Both teams made it to the postseason.
But the Astros' wins need to come now. "At some point you can't say it's a slow start; we need to kick it into gear," says Collin McHugh, who's following up a 19-win, 3.89 ERA 2015 with a 4.82 ERA and 1.45 WHIP this season. "We know how hard this game is, and it gets much harder when you start piling on game after game after game."
NO ASTROS PLAYER this season has had his body of work dissected and disparaged more than Keuchel. It's easy to see why.
Six innings, six earned runs, 7-4 loss to Texas.
Six innings, five earned runs, 11-1 loss to Seattle.
Four and one third of an inning, five earned runs, 6-2 loss to Minnesota.
Six innings, eight earned runs, 11-1 loss to Boston.
Six innings, seven earned runs, 9-2 loss to Texas.
"It's frustrating when I see us get down 8-1," Keuchel says. "Even as the Cy Young winner, there's slim hope to win."
There have been questions about his health, about whether 432 regular-season innings the past two years have worn him down. Last season, Keuchel threw 246 innings between the regular season and the postseason, putting together personal bests in wins, ERA, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings and WHIP. Houston had its ace, the star stopper every team needs if it wants to reach the World Series. Now there's concern last season could have been his undoing.
Fastball velocity is the most easily diagnosed culprit. As it goes, Keuchel's average fastball is 1.4 miles per hour slower than it was last season. Not a devastating falloff, but when your average fastball now is just 88.2 mph, the margin for error becomes much smaller.
He isn't injured, Keuchel insists, though he admits his past workload forced him to make a change. A "warrior," as Castro calls him, Keuchel now limits his throws between starts, but much of his game plan remains the same. "When I'm well, we're going to do well as a team," he says. Keuchel meets with coaches, strategizes with his catcher. "We have to encourage him, stay positive," says Castro, who has offered in-game advice to his pitcher. "I want to make sure he's not losing sight of the big picture. You see a guy like him working so hard, you think it would be easy to get down if the results aren't always there. You can't be perfect all the time."
The Cy Young Award Keuchel took home to Oklahoma was earned with strikes. Strikes allowed him to push the outer limits of home plate later in an at-bat, to backdoor a pitch, to get a batter to swing and miss a 2-2 fastball a smidge off the black. A man who earned his living hitting his spots and creating weak contact among hitters has suddenly discovered it isn't so easy.
Keuchel uses his sinker less frequently, thinking batters will be looking for it. He honed his cutter. The pitch has created more strikeouts, but it has come at a price. Keuchel's line-drive and fly-ball rates are the highest of his career; his 55.7 percent ground-ball rate (one key when discerning weak contact) is the worst since his rookie year. He's posting the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. Hitters aren't swinging at his pitches outside the zone. Unlike last season, he's not creating strikes at the bottom edge of the strike zone. His command has been off. Keuchel has walked 26 batters in fewer than 70 innings this year. He walked 51 last season. These days, if Keuchel wants an out, he has to come at hitters.
Then there are spin rates on his pitches -- another sore point in his metrics -- and how he works batters, that pitch-to-pitch battle in which Keuchel's often found himself losing. Manager A.J. Hinch thinks his pitcher is "nibbling," that Keuchel tries to be too fine, too perfect. "I need to work on the plate and then work off because what I'm doing now isn't doing anybody any good," Keuchel says. "Last year, I was working on the plate, making balls look like strikes and strikes look like balls. I was in the zone. I've got to get back to that." The slow diagnosis continued.
So did the string of poor starts. Velocity. Mechanics. Command. Walks. Home runs. Game after game. Same questions. It doesn't take advanced statistics to realize there's something missing. "I feel good," he says. "Nothing is wrong with me. It's just I'm not pitching well." Even good starts have been marred by mistakes: Two homers in a 3-2, extra-inning loss in early May. Back-to-back, two-out, first-inning home runs in a win against the Angels last weekend. In his past five starts, he has allowed seven home runs.
"It's like the first sign of a problem is admitting it," Hinch said in a radio interview. "Dallas is an intense competitor, but he's also smart. Dallas needs to pitch his game every five days and not consume himself with stopping anything, just win tonight's game."
The question now is whether fixing Keuchel can also fix the Astros.
IN ONE CORNER of a visitors' clubhouse in May, outfielder Carlos Gomez stood in front of his locker. The 30-year-old arrived in Houston via a trade last year and has struggled mightily since. Now, in 121 plate appearances, he was hitting just .192, with a .244 on-base percentage. His power was nonexistent. He'd become an offensive albatross. Gomez's weighted runs created plus -- a ballpark-adjusted measure of a player's total offensive value, measured by runs -- was an abysmal 35, a value 65 percent below a league-average hitter, and easily the worst among Astros starters. It was hardly what Houston, and its fans, expected out of the two-time All-Star. "One of these days, I'm going to click," said Gomez, who was put on the 15-day disabled list on May 17 with a rib injury and made his return to the roster this week. "I've been through this moment a lot in my career. Seven, eight, nine weeks, I hit .170, .200, but I've come back like I'm supposed to. I've just started that a little early. I've been in this league for 10 years. I know how to do my job."
Gomez also knows there are criticisms about his game -- that his best days are behind him. He knows there has been grumbling that he needs to practice his hitting, take more cuts in the batting cage. He holds out his hands, palms toward the ceiling. Yellow callouses are knotted at the base of each of his fingers. "Look at these hands," he says. "You think I get these hands because I'm not working?"
Changes are coming, though. Gomez is expected to lose playing time to Jake Marisnick and rookie Tony Kemp. Through Wednesday, 22-year-old reliever Michael Feliz had struck out 37 batters in 24 innings, prompting calls among some fans that he should eventually close games over Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles. Evan Gattis, who recently returned from the disabled list, could play more games at catcher. Springer has been moved to the top of the batting order, swapping out his second spot with Altuve.
Before the game against the White Sox, Springer wondered what made this season different from the last. The team was young, yes, but it was a playoff-tested roster. Had the Astros been crushing themselves with expectations? "Last year, we snuck up on a lot of people," he said. "Teams are paying more attention to us, they see our style of play. They've adjusted. Now we have to adjust."
But in their past 162 regular-season games, the Astros are 77-85, the definition of a mediocre record. Even last season's 86-win team was on the brink of collapse -- winning just 13 of its last 30 games -- before sliding into the postseason. "I'd much rather play better in August and September than in April and May," Keuchel says. "Last year, we got lucky. I don't think we'd be talking about the playoffs this season if we didn't get lucky."
IT'S NEARING MIDNIGHT in the clubhouse after Houston's 6-5, 12-inning win in Chicago when Keuchel takes a pull from a bottle of Dos Equis. He sets it down, looks around the clubhouse. This win, he says, could be a springboard for the rest of the season.
While Houston ekes out the road win -- thanks, in part, to Gattis' two-run homer in the 11th inning -- Keuchel's performance highlights the inconsistencies that have burdened so many of his starts. Eleven outs on 45 pitches, one solo home run, three earned runs and five strikeouts in the first six innings. And it could have been worse. In the seventh, it was Dallas Keuchel 2016. Twelve pitches. Three walks. A sacrifice bunt was his only out. He left the game with the bases loaded, on the hook for those runners. But then Giles closed the door. In Giles' most important outing of the season, he got two strikeouts to end the inning, to stave off another Keuchel implosion. Score one for the bullpen.
This just as easily could have been another quiet night. With the Astros ahead 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Gregerson gave up three hits and a run to tie the game. It was his third blown save in his past four appearances. Two innings later, with Springer on first base, Gattis put one into the left-field seats. Pat Neshek made it interesting in the bottom of the inning, giving up two hits and a run before getting a strikeout to earn the team's 16th win.
"That was a game that was never going to end, by the looks of some of how some of the breaks were going," a relieved Hinch says afterward. "I thought [Keuchel] threw very well early. He just lost his feel for his pitches. ... He looked up and he was falling behind every hitter."
Dance music blasts over clubhouse speakers. Players wander around, smiling, laughing. The team's first baseman, Tyler White, hit two home runs. "I know I got both of them good," he says. Giles treated his two strikeouts like it was another day at work. "I went out there with the goal to help pick up a teammate and help Keuchel out," he says.
Reporters and cameras surround Keuchel. "That's the best I've felt, so far," he says. He didn't get the win tonight, but he'd dropped his ERA to 5.43. "I felt like I made a lot of pitches. Overall, really good with the command. I think we've turned a corner, which is good because we're a talented group, and we're hungry to win."
He picks up his beer, heads down one row of lockers and lifts the bottle in a silent toast.
"Guys look to me," he'd said just a week earlier, after his terrible start in Boston. "That's fine. I like that."