BY KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON (AP) — Dallas Keuchel is tired of talking about his success against the New York Yankees.
It didn’t matter on Thursday, though. It was an unavoidable subject for Houston’s ace as he prepares to start against them in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series on Friday night. Masahiro Tanaka will pitch for New York, which is in the championship series for the first time since 2012.
“I’ve been asked that question like 10 times already,” a slightly exasperated Keuchel said. “I don’t know, I mean, we’re one of only four teams left, so at this point a lot of guys have had success pitching-wise on either the Indians or the Yankees.”
Unlike the pitcher, manager A.J. Hinch didn’t shy away from singing Keuchel’s praises for his work against the Yankees. He joked that the lefty will probably feel better when he takes the mound and sees players in Yankees uniforms. But he was quick to point out that Keuchel’s success certainly hasn’t been limited to games against New York.
“I know there’s a confidence level,” Hinch said. “And to be honest with you, when Dallas is right, he’s confident against anybody. I don’t think who the names are or who the jersey is, he knows he can get anybody out in the league.”
But Keuchel has pitched better than most against the Yankees in recent years, going 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA and 45 strikeouts in six regular-season starts. His biggest win to date against them came in the 2015 AL wild-card game when he and the then-upstart Astros got a 3-0 win in the Bronx. He struck out seven and scattered three hits over six innings to get the win in Houston’s first trip to the postseason in a decade after years of rebuilding and losing.
“For that win in the wild-card game, it wasn’t just special for me and the validation, it was special for everybody to go into New York and play that well,” he said. “But now we look back on it and it’s probably one of the most magical times that I’ll have in my career and it’s something I’ll never forget, for sure.”
Keuchel gets the nod in the opener after pitching behind Justin Verlander in the ALDS. Verlander, who was acquired on Aug. 31, made his first career relief appearance to help eliminate the Red Sox in Game 4 on Monday.
Hinch sees Keuchel and Verlander as 1A and 1B in his rotation, so who pitched first wasn’t that big of a deal to him.
“Dallas is really good, so I’m not the least bit hesitant on starting him,” Hinch said. “When we made the move to pitch Verlander in Game 4 out of relief we had the backdrop that Dallas was going to start Game 5. So I have all the confidence in the world.”
Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015 when he went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA before struggling last season, with a 9-12 record and 4.55 ERA. He bounced back this year despite neck issues, posting a 14-5 record with a 2.90 ERA to help the Astros run away with the AL West title.
He built off that in his first start this postseason when he yielded three hits and a run in 5 2/3 innings to help Houston to an 8-2 win over the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS. That made him 3-0 with a 2.29 ERA in four postseason appearances with three starts.
“Dallas Keuchel has been remarkable as an Astro, he’s been remarkable in my three years here,” Hinch said. “We hand him the ball and the entire room knows we have a chance to win.”
Tanaka had an inconsistent September that included two starts where he gave up seven earned runs and was capped by one where he struck out 15 in seven scoreless innings before he pitched the Yankees to a 1-0 win in Game 3 against the Indians. He allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings in his second career postseason game.
“His stuff was great the other day, he’s had some really big starts, his last two starts have been outstanding,” manager Joe Girardi said. “And there’s a lot of times that he really gets on a roll and he puts a bunch of them together and we’re going to need a good one from him tomorrow.”
These pitchers will face two of the best hitters in the majors in Houston’s Jose Altuve and New York rookie Aaron Judge. The two are front-runners to MVP after Altuve led the majors with a .346 average and Judge was first in the AL with 52 homers.
Altuve has kept up his blistering pace in the postseason, where he’s hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs. But Judge has had a tough time, going just 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts in the five-game win over Cleveland.
The 25-year-old Judge isn’t daunted by his difficult postseason.
“I don’t think anyone who goes through a season has a perfect season,” Judge said. “So just keep playing my game, keep having fun … just contribute any way I can.”
After Keuchel and Tanaka meet on Friday, Verlander and Luis Severino will pitch in Game 2 on Saturday in Houston. The Yankees said CC Sabathia will pitch Game 3 in New York and Sonny Gray will go in Game 4. Houston’s hasn’t announced its rotation past Saturday.
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