HOUSTON -- Dallas Keuchel throws his fastball an average of 89 mph from the left side, then stares in for the catcher's next sign behind a Tom Hanks-in-Cast-Away beard that adds to his aura of anonymity. He signed for a $150,000 bonus as the 221st pick in the 2009 draft, and he has made himself into a standout big league starter with command, guts and a knack for commanding both sides of the plate. Before Keuchel emerged as an All-Star in Houston, most casual fans were at least even money to mangle the pronunciation of his last name.
Justin Verlander, Keuchel's fellow top-of-the-rotation starter with the Astros, has been a monument to durability and still brings the 95-mph heat at age 34. He was bound for stardom as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft out of Old Dominion, and his $180 million contract and celebrity relationship with supermodel Kate Upton have helped him attain a level of fame that goes well beyond his MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.
That's where the dissimilarities end.
Verlander wants desperately to win a title, and shortly before he signed off on a trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Houston Astros on Aug. 31, he received a phone call from Keuchel exhorting him to come on board. As Verlander explained Friday -- shortly before Keuchel went out and dazzled the New York Yankees with seven shutout innings in a 2-1 Astros victory in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series -- he had to beg out quickly because he had a lot of scenarios spinning through his mind and he simply didn't have the time to chat.
"I've actually apologized to him since," Verlander said. "I told him, 'Dallas, I thank you so much for the phone call, but I've got a lot of other calls I need to make right now and talk to my family and stuff.' And he completely understood.
"Before he left he told me, 'Just one last thing. You won't regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros.'"
On Friday night in Houston, Keuchel put his money where his salesmanship skills were.
Keuchel displayed all the attributes in the ALCS opener that have made him so beloved and trusted by his teammates in Houston. He threw seven four-hit, shutout innings and whiffed 10 Yankees to join Astros royalty Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan as the third Houston pitcher to record double-figure strikeouts in a postseason game.
That's only the beginning. Keuchel joined Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee as the fourth pitcher to throw seven scoreless innings and notch 10 strikeouts against the Yankees in the postseason. And he's now in a small fraternity with Bob Gibson as the second pitcher in postseason history with at least seven strikeouts in his first four career postseason starts.
Keuchel controlled the bottom part of the strike zone, kept the New York hitters off balance with his slider and breaking ball, fed off the energy of the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park and crept into the low 90s with his fastball on several occasions. He admittedly felt "sluggish" out of the gate, and at one point early in the game he retreated down the tunnel from the dugout, took a couple of deep breaths and reflected on the importance of the moment. He locked himself in mentally at that moment, and his night continued to get better as the innings progressed.
After lasting a mere 5⅔ innings against Boston in the division series, Keuchel was intent on going longer against the Yankees. He completed his seven innings on 109 pitches and gave manager A.J. Hinch the freedom to bring in setup man Chris Devenski for one out and then proceed directly to closer Ken Giles for the final five.
Keuchel had that competitive look in his eye that told Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom to refrain from mound visits if at all possible, because he's not a fan of having his mojo interrupted.
"Nobody wants to talk to me because I've got fire coming out of my ears and I'm probably saying a few choice words that I probably shouldn't say," Keuchel said. "That's just the competitor in me.
"As a starting pitcher, I only get to throw once every five days. So while the position guys are having fun and doing their thing and we're enjoying them, I get to sit and watch and pretty much be bored because I don't get to do anything. So I know the hitters would say, 'Hey, I would much rather pitch once every five days than go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. But my rebuttal is, 'Hey, you get redemption every day. I get redemption every five days.'"
The performance was no doubt instructive, and if the friendship that Verlander and Keuchel have forged over the past two months is any indication, they'll share a few insights and kick around some thoughts before Game 2. Since Verlander's arrival in Houston, he and Keuchel have talked exhaustively about the art of pitching on team planes and bus rides, in hotel lobbies and airport terminals, the dugout, clubhouse and the lunch room. Their bond is reminiscent of the way John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux used to talk pitching in Atlanta -- minus the golf anecdotes and Maddux's sophomoric gross-out jokes.
"I mean, we've had some really good conversations, and I think that the differing styles have contributed positively to those conversations," Verlander said.
Roughly 16 hours after Giles struck out Jacoby Ellsbury to end it, the Yankees will have to stand in the box against Verlander and his diametrically opposite repertoire. A random survey of Houston players revealed the contrast is inherently not much fun.
Astros right fielder Josh Reddick speaks from experience. He's a career .130 hitter (6-for-46) with 13 strikeouts vs. Verlander and Keuchel, so he has a good idea of the challenge the Yankees will be facing.
"Those are two guys I didn't have very successful careers off, and you can see the reason why," Reddick said. "I don't want to give any tips away. It's just a matter of trying to get good pitches to hit, because they do what they do best and they've been doing it for so long. Especially J.V.
"He knows how to come in and handle his business and his routine. He doesn't talk to anybody and you don't want to talk to him, because you don't want to throw him off and make him mad. For me, it's pretty simple: Just leave the starter alone and pick on George [Springer]."
It's easy for the Astros to be loose and joke around when they have baseball's best offense and two ace starters with the pedigrees to shut down the opposition. If Verlander needed a road map on how to beat the Yankees, he could draw inspiration from his new BFF in Houston.
Keuchel is one heck of a starter. In the ALCS opener, he showed he can also be a pretty good setup man.