Dallas Keuchel

Gerry Angus/USA Today Sports

Astros needed Games 1 and 2 even more than Red Sox because of these 2 players

John Tomase
October 15, 2018 - 3:23 pm

Here's how Game 2 put the Red Sox in the driver's seat in the American League Championship Series: it robbed the Astros of their greatest advantage.

Entering the series, the Astros viewed Games 1 and 2 as must-wins every bit as much as the Red Sox, even though they were visiting Fenway Park. That's because Houston started twin aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and recognized the drop-off to Games 3 and 4 starters Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton.

Wait a minute, you ask. Isn't Keuchel a former Cy Young Award winner and Morton a 2018 All-Star? Yes and yes, but the two represent bigger vulnerabilities than you'd think.

First of all, Keuchel hasn't been the same pitcher since his breakout 2015 ended with the Cy Young trophy. He went 12-11 this season with a 3.74 ERA and then tossed five decent innings (4 hits, 2 ER) in the clinching victory over the Indians in Game 3 of the ALDS.

But Keuchel's stuff has noticeably diminished. His fastball sits in the 90 mph range and his strikeout rate has dipped from a high of 23.7 percent in 2015 to just 17.5 percent today. He pitches to contact and the Red Sox know how to make that. Their team average of .268 led baseball and their batting average on balls in play of .309 ranked third. Meanwhile, they were one of the five toughest teams in baseball to strike out.

They scored 14 runs against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS before hitting their first homer, Brock's cycle-completing two-run shot that put the finishing touches on a 16-1 blowout.

They also hit Keuchel hard in his only appearance vs. them this season, touching him for nine hits and five runs in six innings, including home run No. 40 for J.D. Martinez.

Morton is a different story. The veteran right-hander delivered the best season of his career, going 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA.

He also began feeling shoulder soreness in August, and the Astros shut him down (sound familiar?) for one start. He returned in September and delivered two wins before lasting only one inning on Sept. 23 against the Angels. A noticeable drop in velocity prompted manager A.J. Hinch to remove him, and he tossed just three innings in a final tuneup start on Sept. 30.

Morton was slated to start Game 4 against the Indians, but the Astros swept. That means he has only thrown four innings in the last month, which calls into question how much stamina he'll have when he takes the mound on Wednesday. The Red Sox are practically guaranteed a bullpen game.

So while splitting at Fenway may seem like it played to the Astros' advantage, don't be so sure. The bottom half of their rotation isn't anywhere near as strong as the top, and it wouldn't be remotely surprising if the Red Sox leave Houston with a chance to close things out in Boston in Game 6 on Saturday.