October Moment: Keuchel strikes out Cain

Sunday in Houston during the Astros’ 4-2 win, the Royals went ahead 1-0 in the fourth inning. But the Astros took a 2-1 lead in the fifth on Jason Castro’s two-run single. That’s where things stood in the seventh, when Alex Rios somehow led off with a walk against Dallas Keuchel. Alcides Escobar grounded out, with Rios advancing. Next, Ben Zobrist got credited with a sacrifice hit, although he was obviously hoping for a base hit. You know, since you don’t sacrifice for the second out unless you’re a pitcher.

Which brought up Lorenzo Cain, leading to this exchange on TV …

Matt Vasgersian: With Cain comin’ up, that may do it for Keuchel …

John Smoltz: One hundred eighteen pitches from Dallas Keuchel this afternoon, and it’s not an automatic yet.

/after a seven-second mound conference with A.J. Hinch …

Vasgersian: This crowd loves the decision to keep the ace out there.

I was watching, and here’s what I dashed off before Keuchel’s first pitch to Cain:

Back in the fourth inning, Cain touched Keuchel for a Statcast-worthy home run:

Granted, Cain’s fourth-inning moon shot should have little or no bearing on the decision regarding Keuchel in the seventh. Factors that should be considered: Cain bats right-handed, he’d already seen Keuchel three times, and Keuchel had already thrown 118 pitches. In his 34 previous starts this year, Keuchel had topped 118 pitches just twice: on Aug. 31 against the Mariners, and on Sept. 27 against the Rangers, when he threw 122 pitches in a must-win game.

One bit of good news: in Keuchel’s last start, against the Yankees in the Wild Card Game, he threw only 87 pitches. Still, 118 is obviously a lot of pitches, and there was obviously a good chance that he would set a season high in pitching to Cain.

In the fourth inning, Cain’s home run came on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, a hanging slider.

In that at-bat, Keuchel threw two sliders and four pitches in the strike zone.

In the seventh inning, though? Look at the location, via Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x tool:

Not a single one of those pitches was a slider; there were a couple of two-seam (sinking) fastballs and four changeups. According to PITCHf/x, Keuchel’s most effective pitches this season were his two-seamer and his slider … but of course his slider would figure to be less effective against righty hitters, and his changeup was a good pitch this season, too.

The key here, though, was simply that Keuchel threw six pitches outside the strike zone and Cain swung at three of them. Granted, the first two swings were at pitches just off the edge, but those swings weren’t likely to result in solid contact even if Cain hadn’t missed.

Clearly, Keuchel wasn’t at his best after 118 pitches, but he didn’t need to be. Because Cain bailed him out.

Was this a terrible strategy, though? Cain’s aggression? Maybe not. Lefty-hitting Eric Hosmer was on deck, and lefty-killing Tony Sipp was ready in the bullpen. Even if Cain had been patient and walked, the Royals still probably wouldn’t have scored in the inning.

Were their chances better with an aggressive Cain than a platoon-disadvantaged Hosmer? That’s hard to say! It’s easy to say Cain should have “waited for a good pitch to hit,” but what if that pitch simply wasn’t coming? It’s easy to say Cain should have just taken the walk, but Keuchel did strike out 216 batters during the regular season, and not all of those were by accident.

No, this wasn’t the game’s biggest at-bat. The biggest at-bat was Castro’s two-run single in the fifth, and the second biggest was Chris Carter’s solo homer in the seventh. But Cain’s strikeout felt like the biggest, and it’s the one that Royals fans might remember all winter long.

Oh, and just in case the rest of you missed it: