Dallas Keuchel (0-0, 0.00) versus Corey Kluber (0-0, 0.00)
Depending on whether you think the glass is half empty or half full, this was either (i) a well-pitched ballgame between two aces (including one reigning Cy Young Award winner), or (ii) the trucks from the various Spring Training sites arrived late or did not bring the bats with them to MMP, which explains the dominance of the sets of pitching staff. This game flew by like well-pitched ballgames tend to do. And because the Astros managed to sequence their hits better than the Indians team (something the Astros struggled with last year), they won their Opening Day encounter for the third straight year, this time by a score of 2-0.
If there was one thing lacking about Dallas Keuchel in his breakout 2014 campaign, it was a relative lack of starts where he yielded no runs. He managed only 2 shutouts throughout the 2014 season, and had two other appearances where he allowed no unearned runs, but either 1 or 2 earned runs. Much of his excellent work was done by not getting shelled: he allowed a maximum of five earned runs in his 29 starts last year. Also, in 15 of the 29 starts, he allowed 2 or fewer runs. So he was consistently solid, but a few more shutouts would have been the icing on the cake.
So it is perhaps a sign of improvement that Keuchel threw seven scoreless frames against a left-leaning Indians lineup tonight. He was only really in trouble in one inning. Read on for more information!
On the Mound:
Keuchel had the honour of the first Opening Day start of the year, and he didn't let the side down. He did what he does: strike out a few, keep the ball on the ground, and field his position like a genuine gold-glover. He missed with a few pitches (especially up) as the game progressed, but kept the ball out of the middle of the strike zone which meant that the Indians lineup struggled to hit him hard all day.
Keuchel retired the first seven in a row (groundout-flyout-groundout-three strikeouts (all swinging on breaking pitches) and a groundout) before allowing a line drive just past a diving and shifted Luis Valbuena for the first hit of the game. Lonnie Chisenhall was the batter. He was stranded thanks to two successive Keuchel groundouts.
Keuchel then walked Carlos Santana with two outs in the fourth, but Yan Gomes fisted a line drive back to the mound to end that frame. In the fifth, Keuchel sandwiched a double play between two walks, then coaxed Jose Ramírez into a groundout back to the mound to end that frame. In the sixth, the Indians went in order (groundout-groundout-lineout back to the pitcher), and because the Astros scored a run in the bottom half of the frame, Keuchel entered the seventh with a slim 1-0 lead.
And the seventh was the only frame where he was in trouble. Carlos Santana lead off with a single on a breaking pitch, then Yan Gomes hit a hard ground ball just inside the third base chalk for another single. It would have been a double if not for a great diving stop by Luis Valbuena, who made a valiant attempt to throw Gomes out, but the ball arrived a step or two too late.
So, runners on first and second, no outs, holding a 1-run lead. Keuchel then struck out newly acquired Brandon Moss on a breaking pitch down for the first out. The second out was a carbon copy of Ryan Raburn's out on the second - a weak ground ball around one-third of the way down the third base line. Keuchel leapt off the mound, pounced on the ball, and threw a strong and accurate strike to Chris Carter at first base to nab the runner by a step. Both runners advanced, but the inning ended when Lonnie Chisenhall grounded just to the third-base side of the mound, which Keuchel snared. Keuchel's last throw of the game was a lob over to Chris Carter at first, and the slim lead the Astros had when they entered the seventh frame was preserved.
Tony Sipp then took over, and he looked pretty good. He struck out the righty Jose Ramírez and ex-Stro Michael Bourn for the first two outs. Sipp then got Kipnis to line out to left for the third out.
The newly anointed Astros closer, Luke Gregerson came on to start the ninth. And, in a massive change for Astros fans, there was precisely no drama. Six pitches and three outs, including three-pitch strikeout of Yan Gomes to end the game.
At the Plate:
For a while, it looked like the Astros were going to be no-hit. Corey Kluber was hitting his spots with all of his offerings. He allowed only one baserunner through the first five innings - a walk to Colby Rasmus in the third inning. But the Astros, even when they were being retired in order, managed to string together some pretty decent at-bats, with some loud outs credited to Jason Castro, Chris Carter and Evan Gattis.
In the sixth, the Astros managed to string a couple of hits together, which resulted in a run. Jose Altuve (who else??) blooped the first pitch of the at-bat off the end of the lumber into CF. The ball dropped well short of Michael Bourn, and well over the heads of the middle infielders. Perfect placement! That swing broke up the no-hitter, and put Altuve on first with two outs and Springer at the plate.
What happened next was impressive. Altuve was off and running on the first pitch, and stole the bag with time to spare. It is one thing to steal a base, and another thing to steal a base when the whole stadium knows that it is coming. He got a solid jump, and slid into second well before the tag from a slightly wayward throw. Springer then lined a single into left through the 5.5 hole - just past a diving Ramírez - and Altuve scored. Springer was erased for the third out trying to advance to second - perhaps protecting Altuve at the plate - but the throw from LF was well up the first base line, so Altuve was never going to be challenged at home. Perhaps some unnecessary aggressiveness from Springer, but it worked out in the end.
Kluber managed an uneventful seventh frame (I just had a battle with my spell-check, which wanted to change "Kluber" to "Blubber") that ended with a Chris Carter line drive that was snared at third. Jed Lowrie got on base with one out in the eighth frame, when he walked on a full count. Colby Rasmus then singled through the right side of the infield on a hard-hit liner to send Lowrie to third. Marisnick then flew out to RF, and Lowrie scored on the sac fly. Some solid at-bats provided an insurance run for Gregerson - that thankfully proved unnecessary in the final wash-up.
Keuchel fielded his position beautifully today, and it ended up being vital for the final result. Keuchel got Ryan Raburn on two occasions to ground to a near-identical spot down the third-base line. Both times, Keuchel ran quickly to the ball, set his feet for the throw, and nailed a strike to Chris Carter. On the second occasion, Keuchel was in a jam, with runners on first and second, and one out. Another baserunner (or an errant throw) may have proven fatal for the Astros at that point, but Keuchel's agility wound up being a key part of keeping the Indians offence off the board.
Man of the Match:
Solid team effort, but Dallas Keuchel stood out tonight for both his fielding and his pitching. He seemed to miss his spots a bit - especially arm-side and up - through the middle of his outing, but he managed to knuckle down to work of out a jam when he needed to.
Honourable mentions to Chris Carter and Evan Gattis, who recorded some loud outs; Jose Altuve and George Springer for combining to score the first run of the game; Luis Valbuena for his diving stop on Yan Gomes' hard grounder; and Jason Castro, for hard-hit out and solid game-calling.
Goat of the Game:
Luke Gregerson, for taking six pitches to retire the side in the ninth. C'mon, man, be efficient!
Both teams have a day off tomorrow, but continue the series on Wednesday. Scott Feldman versus the newly extended Carlos Carrasco. Will he be worth the contract?? (Carrasco, not Feldman). 8 Eastern, 7 Central.
County Clerk fans:
Your beloved Cockroach is on the DL for the first three or so weeks of the season, so myself, the Constable, Batguy and (Not Hank) will combine to keep the County Clerk office staffed.