NEW YORK (AP) – For Dallas Keuchel, pitching on three days’ rest for the Houston Astros in the American League wild-card game is just one more chance to prove a season’s worth of doubters wrong.
”I play with a chip on my shoulder,” Keuchel said Monday at Yankee Stadium. ”I think a lot of the guys do in there as well. And we’ll always carry that.”
Before they take on a pitcher who shut them out twice this season, the New York Yankees faced another difficult challenge: Clubhouse leader CC Sabathia is not going to be with the team in the postseason because he is checking into an alcohol rehabilitation center.
”For tomorrow, not just for the team, but maybe we can get the win for CC as well,” Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka (12-7) said Monday after a meeting that not only focused on the Astros but also how players could support their friend and teammate.
To advance to the division series and face the Royals in a best-of-five matchup that begins Thursday night in Kansas City, the Yankees will have to figure out how to beat the AL’s only 20-game winner in a winner-take-all playoff Tuesday night after going scoreless against him in 16 innings this season.
Keuchel (20-8) might have trouble walking the streets of Manhattan these days with his distinctive bushy beard giving him away to fans, but he’s been elusive on the mound in a season that has made him a Cy Young Award candidate.
And first-year manager A.J. Hinch, who pressed all the right buttons in guiding the surprising Astros to their first postseason in 10 years, is confident his 27-year-old ace will handle the short rest without a problem.
”I think his preparation is fine. Physically he’s fine. It’s just a little bit of a different routine,” Hinch said. ”It probably garners more attention than it needs to. But at the end of the day, I think if he pitches well it will be a lot of guts and he came through on short rest. If he doesn’t pitch well, then it’s a change in routine and a lack of rest.”
Keuchel sees the questions about his ability to start without regular rest just one more reason for Houston to defy expectations. The young ballclub, with a rising star in rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, is two years removed from a 111-loss season. But the Astros surprised almost everyone in baseball by racing out to a big lead in the AL West only to fade in September before rallying and earning the second wild card on the final day of the schedule.
”We proved people wrong continuously throughout the season and we’re going to try to continue to do that,” Keuchel said.
The storied Yankees were also a bit of a surprise; not much was expected from an aging roster with pitching questions the year after Derek Jeter hung up his spikes. But led by the resurgent Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (who is injured), New York sat atop the AL East late into the summer before slumping down the stretch.
Keuchel will be facing a New York lineup that has limped into the postseason, losing six of seven games.
In better times for the Yankees, Keuchel shut them out with a six-hitter in Houston on June 25. He repeated that impressive performance in the Bronx, pitching three-hit ball for seven innings on Aug. 25.
”He’s a guy who keeps the ball down in the zone,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. ”You can’t chase on him.”
Jason Castro, who has caught Keuchel throughout his development into this year’s AL All-Star Game starter, credits a slider the left-hander can spot well repeatedly as one of the keys to his success.
”He’s come a long way. He’s made some great improvements over the last few years,” Castro said. ”His slider has developed into a plus pitch.”
If the Yankees are going to finally get to Keuchel in their first postseason game since 2012, they might need Brett Gardner and Rodriguez to emerge from their second-half swoon. Usual leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury won’t even start the game, as Girardi kept the left-handed hitter on the bench with Gardner taking Ellsbury’s spot in center field and atop the batting order.
Ellsbury has slumped to a .220 average with five homers and 23 RBIs since the All-Star break, but Gardner has been worse, hitting .206 over that span.
Chris Young, 6 for 20 against Keuchel, is batting second and playing left.
A-Rod has struggled mightily in many Octobers past, but he sees the positives going into Tuesday.
Just as this season was for him after sitting out last year because of a drug suspension, the postseason is a clean slate for everyone.
”It all goes back to reset,” he said.
Houston center fielder Carlos Gomez, who missed the final regular-season series with a strained left chest muscle, is in the starting lineup. Also on the roster is right-hander Mike Fiers, a starter who threw a no-hitter in August and has one relief appearance for the Astros this season.