Kluber, Indians ready for Opening Day in Houston
HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Astros talked all winter about how much better they will be this season.
On Monday against Cleveland they’ll get their first chance to prove it.
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel is set to make his first career opening-day start when he opposes 2014 American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who signed a five-year, $38.5 million deal on Sunday.
"I think we can do some pretty good stuff," Keuchel said. "We haven’t started the season right now so it’s just words … but from what we did at spring training, I think we’re capable of making a playoff push and that’s ultimately what we want to do."
Keuchel got the nod for opening day after going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA and winning his first Gold Glove last season. The 27-year-old is trying to treat Monday like any other game, but admitted he might feel some jitters.
"I’m sure there will be some nerves," he said. "I remember last year (Scott) Feldman was pitching and I was nervous for him. So that’s to be expected a little bit."
First-year manager A.J. Hinch loves Keuchel’s presence on the mound and is confident he can build on his work last season.
"His stuff plays in any level against any team," Hinch said. "And handing him the ball on opening day was an easy decision for me because of the way he goes about his business and the way he attacks hitters."
The Astros made a 19-game improvement last season to snap a streak of three straight 100-loss seasons. They beefed up their bullpen and added more power to a lineup that features 2014 AL batting champion Jose Altuve in an attempt to make another big jump in 2015.
They’ll get a good test early when they meet a Cleveland team that went 85-77 last season and fell just short of reaching the postseason. Kluber leads the rotation after going 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 2014. That performance marked just the fourth time since 1987 that a player had 18 wins, an ERA below 2.50 and at least 260 strikeouts.
"We’re excited about the group we have," the right-hander said. "Again, potential is one thing and going out there and doing it is another. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable to our own expectations, not just others."
The Indians are also looking for Jason Kipnis to rebound from an injury-plagued season in which he hit just .240 with six homers and 41 RBIs a year after an All-Star season where he hit .284 with 17 homers and 84 RBIs.
"I feel good, I’m healthy again," said Kipnis, who couldn’t shake an oblique injury that hindered his swing last season. "My body’s strong again, and my swing I’m starting to be able to extend on balls, which I wasn’t able to do last year."
The Astros are excited about an offense that has plenty of power with Chris Carter, who tied for second in the majors with 37 homers last year, George Springer and first-year Astros Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus. It’s a unit that has Altuve as the leadoff hitter. He’s coming off a sensational season where he hit .341 to become the first Houston player to win a batting title and set a team record with 225 hits.
Hinch is confident that his team will hit is out of the park plenty this season, but is curious to see how the rest of the offense will shake out.
"I think our offense is more than one-dimensional," Hinch said. "I like the fact that we are dangerous and the other dugout’s going to know that we can leave the ballpark at any time. I’m more interested in if we can continue to hit with runners in scoring position? Can we hit with a guy on third and less than two outs? Can we find multiple ways to score, because I feel like the home runs will be there … we may be known as a team with a ton of power, but a well-rounded offense is something that I’m going to pay attention to."