José Quintana (2-5, 4.67) versus Dallas Keuchel (6-1, 1.98)
The Astros opted to have Dallas Keuchel go on 4 days' rest, knocking Roberto Hernández back one day in the order. The plan was probably to (i) have Keuchel pitch a bit more and Hernández a bit less and (ii) hope that Keuchel's starts result in less stressful day for the bullpen than the starts from McCullers (the day before Kuechel) and Hernández (the day after). That was certainly emphasised during Friday nights game, when McCullers only managed four-and-one-third innings, and the game went 11 innings overall, meaning that the 'pen had to account for six-and-two-thirds innings, many of them under considerable pressure. And it was double-emphasised tonight, when Dallas Keuchel threw his second complete game in a row, shutting out the White Sox, and giving the bullpen a rest night.
The Astros scored just enough runs, generally fielded quite well (aside from a couple of miscues), and managed some towering shots to left field late to draw level in the series, and take the game by a score of 3-0.
On the Mound:
After Keuchel's last start - when he left pitches up, and as a result gave up two two-run home runs - I thought that it would be un-Keuchel-like not to bounce back, and resume pounding the zone down. He did that today, and in after-match comments, he credited his two seamer for being particularly strong. He worked off the corners well, throwing his two-seamer around 60% of the time, and rarely relying on breaking stuff (around 15%) or off-speed stuff (around 6%). In all, he threw 113 pitches, 78 for strikes; allowed 4 hits and no walks; and struck out a career high 11. He kept the ball on the ground (11:3), and lowered his ERA to 1.76 with his second consecutive complete game.
The recap itself won't take long. Keuchel retired the side in order in the first, striking out Emilio Bonifacio on three pitches - the last of which was a fastball spotted on the outside corner, which drew the swing before fading down and away. In the second, Alexei Ramírez reached on a Villar throwing error at third base - I thought that was rough on Villar because Carter jumped when he didn't need to, coming off the bag in the process. The throw was not all that high. The third inning was remarkable for a lead-off double from last night's hero, Geovany Soto. He advanced to third on a groundout for the first out. But Keuchel bore down, striking out Adam Eaton (on a slider away) and Emilio Bonifacio (again on a fading fastball), for the second and third outs, stranding Soto at third.
In the fourth, Avisail García struck out swinging at a fading fastball before Melky Cabrera singled on a line-drive to RF with one out, but Keuchel again struck out the last two batters of the frame: Adam LaRoche on a slurve well out of the zone, and Alexi Ramírez on a back foot slider to end the frame. In the fifth, Gordon Beckham bloop singled just over shortstop to lead off, then he tried to advance when Geovany Soto hit a sinking line-drive into RF. Springer was there to make the catch, and he easily doubled Beckham off first. In the sixth, Keuchel spotted a 4-seamer on the outside corner to set Adam Eaton down as the lead-off out, then García singled on a line drive to right with two outs. He went no where as well after Keuchel induced a soft grounder to second. In the seventh, Adam LaRoche again struck out on a slider away (and again well out of the zone) leading off, then two more groundouts set the side down in order.
Jonathan Villar committed his second throwing error of the game to allow Soto to reach leading off the eighth. Again, the throw was a little high, but it tipped off Carter's glove in another play that I thought should have been made by Carter. Anyhow, Keuchel struck out the second baseman Carlos Sánchez (another back-foot slider) for the first out, then Adam Eaton lined out to Villar at third with pinch-runner and ex-stro J.B. Shuck trying to steal, and he was thrown out by Villar for the third out of the frame: Villar managed to successfully connect with Carter to complete that out.
The ninth was awesome - the kind of frame that a team has when they have worked hard, and deserve to try for something special. After leading one-nil after the fourth, Gattis and Carter went back-to-back in the bottom of the eighth, and Keuchel was given the luxury of entering the ninth with a three run cushion. It had been a hard-fought game, and I think that Hinch was allowing him the opportunity of a shutout - had any runs been scored, Gregerson or another fresh arm would have come out and relieved. No one was warmed up, so it could have been a different story had Gattis not homered as the second batter of the eighth inning.
Anyhow, The Beard coaxed a grounder out of Bonifacio to second base, then another grounder out of Avisail García back to the mound. That set up a two-out clash against Melky Cabrera - an ex-batting champ - and, on the eighth pitch, Keuchel blew a 2-2 fastball down-and-away past Melky for the last out. The stadium erupted, and Keuchel finished perhaps his best game in a young, and hopefully illustrious, career.
At the Plate:
José Quintana has been pretty good against the Astros in 4 appearances prior to this one. The Columbian has allowed a .261/.337/.318 triple slash against Astros hitters in 98 plate appearances. He has struck out 26 while walking 10 in 22 frames, good for a 3.63 ERA. Throw in the Astros' problems with lefties this year, and this was probably not going to be a game where a high score was going to be posted.
Quintana started hot, too. He struck out the side in the first, and the side went in order in the second on three consecutive grounders - on eight pitches. In the third, Quintana struck out Castro and González - the first two hitters of the inning, before walking Marisnick and Springer. An Altuve ground out ended that frame.
The Astros scored their only run off Quintana in the fourth. Preston Tucker reached out, and blooped a wee fly ball just on to the outfield grass behind shortstop. Would have made a great soft-handed wedge shot in golf. Evan Gattis shot a hard grounder the other way, and Tucker was off and racing to third. The inning nearly unravelled at that point when Gattis rounded first too far - not trying to advance, he was just caught sleeping - and he got tagged out at first after a good read-and-cut from Ramírez. Chris Carter then walked on a full count, laying off two excellent pitches with two strikes, putting runners on the corners. Jonathan Villar also fought hard in his at-bat, earning a 3-0 green-light swing, then fighting off a couple of fouls for a full count, and eventually driving a ball to medium left. Cabrera got behind the ball well, and fired a strong throw to the plate (I cast some aspersions on his arm yesterday), but the ball short-hopped the catcher Soto, and Tucker scored on the sac fly from third. Even if Soto had gathered and tagged Tucker, he may well have been safe because Soto was possibly blocking the plate before the ball arrived.
The Astros kept working Quintana, but to no avail. Springer worked a walk with two outs in the fifth, and Tucker singled opening the sixth. Gattis (on a pitch at his neck height) and Carter both struck out before Villar singled and was out stretching at second for the third out. A great gather-and-throw off the wall from Cabrera was the catalyst for that play and Villar was out by three steps. González singled with one out in the seventh to chase Quintana (a nubber through the 5.5 hole off the end of the bat), followed by a Marisnick single (he looked much better at the plate tonight), but Springer and Altuve went in order to end the frame.
The insurance runs came in the eighth. Robin Ventura brought lefty Dan Jennings in to start the inning, which was led off by Preston Tucker. He left him in to face Evan Gattis. On a 2-2 count, Gattis reached down and golfed a low breaking ball into the Crawford Boxes for a solo shot. Five pitches later, Chris Carter hit a similar pitch - a little more over the plate, but still a low breaking ball - out into the LF power-alley. That is the first time I can recall Gattis and Carter going back-to-back, which is something I expected to see a lot this year, but have been thus far disappointed.
Five batters were on base twice tonight. George Springer went 0-2 with 2 walks; Preston Tucker and Evan Gattis both went 2-4, with Gattis hitting a home run; Carter went 1-3 with a walk and a home run, and Handsome Jake went 1-2 with a walk. Marwin González and Jonathan Villar both went 1-3, with Villar responsible for a sac-fly. His at-bats have looked good recently as well, and I am not totally sure he deserved two errors against him on the day.
In the fourth, Chris Carter did well to work a walk, laying off two breaking pitches with two strikes. Jonathan Villar followed with a good at-bat where he ran the count to 3-0, then fought off a couple of tough pitches before driving a ball deep enough into LF to get Tucker - with his "bad baseball body" - home. I thought Villar just missed the pitch - it looked like an extra-base hit in the making - but he did enough to get the go-ahead and game-winning run home.
Man of the Match:
I doubt that there are many objections to Dallas Keuchel winning this award. He was solid, facing a lineup that had Avisail García added to it, but Jose Abreu subtracted from it. You can't luck into an 11-strikeout 4-hitter, however, and the GB:FB ratio was very Keuchel-esque indicating that he was doing what he wanted to do. Awesome! Remember that this time last year, Keuchel put together a stretch where he was pretty awesome, so with any luck, that will happen again.
Goat of the Game:
In celebration of Keuchel's shutout, no Goats. The leading candidates would have been the corner infielders for their lack of ability to catch and throw, but they both contributed heavily with the bat, so they get a pass.
The White Sox send their third consecutive left-hander, and the third of their four left-handed starters to the mound against Roberto Hernández. Hernández is working on six days' rest, which may prove difficult for the sinkerballer to handle, but we will see. This may be a high scoring affair.
John Danks (2-4, 5.69) versus Roberto Hernández (2-3, 4.77)
2 Eastern, 1 Central.