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Improved slider bolsters former Hog's rapid rise
Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, right, goes through his windup during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., Sunday, June 22, 2014.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Baseball writer Richard Justice made a strong pitch for Houston Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel a few weeks back.
"Keuchel is the kind of guy that could use the All-Star Game's stage to tell his story, to talk of perseverance and hard work," Justice wrote for mlb.com. "Isn't that what the All-Star Game is all about? He's also deserving of the honor. Slam-dunk deserving."
Justice's pitch and Keuchel's first-half performance still didn't land the former Arkansas Razorback in the All-Star Game, but he didn't miss it by much. Keuchel, a former Arkansas Razorbacks pitcher, was one of five players on the online ballot for the American League's final roster spot, losing out to Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale.
It's possible Keuchel could still be named as an injury replacement by American League Manager John Ferrell of the Boston Red Sox before Tuesday's game at Target Field in Minneapolis, but he isn't fretting over it.
"The All-Star Game represents some of the best players in the world," said Keuchel, who has a 9-5 record and a 3.20 ERA for a Houston Astros team that is 16 games under .500 "I just try to do my best and let the rest take care of itself."
Keuchel, 26, came into the season just trying to earn a spot in the Astros rotation after going 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA while shuttling between Houston and its Class AAA farm team in Oklahoma City the previous two seasons.
"We don't play forever in this game," Keuchel said. "I wasn't as consistent as I wanted to be, so I knew I needed to change."
The ability to adapt is something Keuchel has demonstrated throughout his career.
He signed with Arkansas out of Bishop Kelly High School in Tulsa, using a slider as his primary pitch, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2007 after compiling a 6-3 record and a 5.88 ERA. Working with Razorbacks pitching coach Dave Jorn, Keuchel began to develop what he labeled "an above-average change-up" that helped him lead the Hogs with nine victories in 2009. He finished his college career 19-9 with a 4.56 ERA.
Keuchel moved through the Astros' minor league system quickly after being drafted in the seventh round in 2009. He advanced to Class AA Corpus Christi and Class AAA Oklahoma City in 2011, then split time between Oklahoma City and an Astros team that went 106-218 in 2012 and 2013.
"Not knowing where you're going to be in a couple of weeks is very stressful on your professional life," Keuchel said. "I've pushed that aside and said I was going to do my best to perform each day and whatever happens, happens."
Learning how to best use his full assortment of pitches was part of the maturation process that landed Keuchel on his first opening-day roster and contributed to his emergence as the ace of a young pitching staff.
Keuchel said he began to regain the feel for his slider late last season and had success throwing it for strikes. He said he has virtually stopped throwing the curveball.
"It's a more comfortable feeling," said Keuchel of throwing the slider. "I feel like I can throw it at any time, in any count. It's taken me this long to get [the feeling] back, so I don't want to lose it."
The re-emergence of Keuchel's slider has complemented his sinker, which accounts for 41 percent of his total pitches. Throw in an effective change-up and four-seam fastball, and Keuchel has kept the hitters guessing while striking out 87 and walking 28 in 115 1/3 innings.
"One of Dallas' greatest strengths is he makes a great number of his pitches look like strikes out of his hand because of the way he drives the ball," Astros pitching coach Brent Strom said. "He drives the ball in a straight line. He doesn't let things get away from him. Everything he throws comes out of his hand somewhat in the confines of the strike zone, and then the ball works off of that.
"He puts the hitter in a dilemma sometimes when they're caught in between: Is this ball going to stay in the strike zone because he has such good control? Or is it going to fade? And to add to that, he adds speed. There are speeds that make it so difficult."
Keuchel took the American League by surprise in early June, starting the season 8-3 with six victories on the road. He was named the American League's pitcher of the week May 27 after earning consecutive victories on the road, including a complete-game four-hitter May 25 at Seattle.
Keuchel's past few starts didn't help his All-Star case. He lost his last two starts in June and was scratched from a start June 29 against the Detroit Tigers because of inflammation in his left (throwing) wrist, which Keuchel said may have been caused by a poor sleeping position.
He bounced back. Keuchel allowed a career-high 13 hits in a July 4 start against the Los Angeles Angels but earned a no-decision. He won his final start of the first half, an 8-4 victory over Texas last week, after allowing 4 runs on 8 hits with 3 strikeouts and 1 walk in 6 2/3 innings.
Keuchel has said repeatedly that he's the same pitcher he's always been, but he made alterations to his delivery in spring training. He almost appears to squat, his arms spreading in sync with his lower half as he prepares to throw a pitch, much like Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kerahaw.
"The guy that most mimics his delivery, it'd be Kershaw," Strom said.
Keuchel changed his mental approach, as well.
"I'm not trying to be too fine anymore," Keuchel said. "That's what I did my rookie year, and obviously I had more walks than strikeouts. I'm just trying to go out there and help the team to the best of my ability."
Keuchel was 8-3 when Justice wrote that he has earned admiration and respect.
"Keuchel is a reminder for all of us that young players require patience, that they don't all advance at the same speed and that, in the end, they don't all figure it out. Keuchel has figured it out dramatically and emphatically."
Information for this article was provided by Evan Drellich and Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, Curtis Crabtree of The Associated Press and Matt Jones of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Sports on 07/13/2014