When it came to facing the Yankees, Dallas Keuchel was Cliff Lee. He was so much like Lee that I started calling him Cliff Lee 2.0. He owned the Yankees with low-90s fastballs and breaking balls to the point where it was an automatic loss when he pitched against them.
In 2015, Keuchel faced the Yankees on June 25. His line: 9 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 12 K.
He faced them again that season on August 25. His line: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K.
When it was announced that he would start the wild-card game, it didn’t matter that it was at Yankee Stadium. The game could have been played anywhere and he would have won, and the annoying Astros fans wearing Keuchel beards that made the trip to the Bronx would have been in attendance wherever it was played. But it was played in the Bronx, and Keuchel once again didn’t allow a run. 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K.
Opening Day is a beautiful day. It’s the start of a new season after six months of no baseball and miserable weather. The excitement I get from Opening Day can’t be put into words. But after leaving the Stadium following the wild-card game loss the previous fall, I was more than ready for the start of the 2016 season. Until I realized who would be pitching: Cliff Lee 2.0.
Keuchel was on the mound again on Opening Day 2016 at the Stadium, going head-t0-head with Masahiro Tanaka in a rematch of the wild-card game, and just like they had in their last game of the 2015, the Yankees lost the first game of 2016. They did finally break through against Keuchel for two runs, but that would be all. 7 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 5 K.
Nearly four months later, on July 25, the Yankees finally did beat Keuchel. But it was more that the Astros’ lost him the game than the Yankees beat him. 7.2 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 5 K.
Then, on May 11, 2017, in his only regular-season appearance against the Yankees of the regular season, Keuchel put together his usual performance for another win: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB 9 K.
The Yankees couldn’t beat him. Well, they could once, but that was a 2-1 win, in which he pitched into the eighth inning and allowed six baserunners in seven-plus. From the start of 2015 through the end of the 2017 regular season, the Yankees had scored four earned runs against Keuchel in 42 2/3 innings. His combined line in those six starts: 42.2 IP, 26 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 7 BB, 47 K, 0.84 ERA, 0.773 WHIP. And on top of those outrageous numbers, he had never allowed a home run to a Yankee in his career.
I knew entering the ALCS the Yankees were in trouble. They would essentially have to go 4-1 in Games 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series because they weren’t going to win Game 1 or Game 5, which Keuchel was going to start. I was right. In Game 1, Keuchel dominated the Yankees the way he always had (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 10 K) and the Astros went up 1-0 in the series. The next day, Justin Verlander followed Keuchel’s dominance and the Yankees were down 2-0.
The Yankees went on to win Game 3 and had the legendary comeback against the Astros’ bullpen in Game 4 to tie the series at 2. But it was Keuchel’s turn in the rotation again, and unless the Yankees could beat him, they were going to have to win Games 6 and 7 in Houston.
And that’s when everything changed.
In the first inning of Game 5, Keuchel got Brett Gardner to ground out on the second pitch of the at-bat, and then struck out Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. As I sat/stood in right field, I knew how this game would play out. I was in the same exact spot two years ago when Keuchel shut down the Yankees (granted, the 2015 Yankees), and Tanaka, also starting Game 5, couldn’t hold down the Astros’ offense. From my apartment, I had watched this same game unfold five days earlier with the same starting pitchers. The only chance the Yankees would have was the familiar one with Keuchel on the mound: Tanaka needed to keep the game close to get to the bullpen because the Yankees were unlikely to score.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
Tanaka pitched around a leadoff double in the second, and Keuchel answered by quickly retiring Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks in the bottom half of the inning. With two outs and no one on, Starlin Castro jumped on a 1-0 pitch for a double to left-center, and Greg Bird, who had saved the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, and who had one of the only three hits against Keuchel in the 2015 wild-card game stepped in. Keuchel got behind him 2-0, and on the next pitch, Bird rocked a line-drive single to right to score Castro. The Yankees led 1-0.
That was the at-bat that changed it all. That was the at-bat that started the process of turning Keuchel into any other pitcher against the Yankees.
Judge added an RBI double in the third to make it 2-0, and in the fifth, the Yankees delivered the knockout punch. With two on and two outs, Sanchez and Gregorius delivered back-to-back RBI singles to make it 4-0 as Keuchel gave up the ball and made the long walk back to the visitor’s dugout with the Stadium shaking. His line: 4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 8 K. The Yankees had done it. They had ruined Keuchel.
On May 2 of this season, the Yankees saw Keuchel for the first time since Game 5, and they beat him again. He pitched good enough to win on most days, but he was no longer Cliff Lee 2.0. 7 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 5 K. All three of those runs were a product of two Giancarlo Stanton home runs. A two-run home run in the first and a solo home run in the fourth. The first and second home runs Dallas Keuchel had ever given up to a Yankee in his career.
Last night, Keuchel was back at the Stadium for the first time since Game 5, and again, the Yankees beat him. He got his strikeouts, the way he always seems to do against the Yankees (the way every elite starting pitcher seems to do against the Yankees), but he put 10 runners on base in five innings, and once again, he couldn’t get Sanchez out in a big spot. 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 7 K.
The 5-3 win over Keuchel and the Astros gave the Yankees the season series win, which could be a significant factor if they meet against in October for the third time in the last four years. After losing all four games in Houston in the ALCS, the Yankees proved they could win there, taking three out of four in Houston four weeks ago, and then two out of three in the Bronx this week. They also proved they could beat Dallas Keuchel with their third straight win over the former Cy Young winner. They proved that Dallas Keuchel is no Cliff Lee.
Now there’s only one thing left for the Yankees to do: Figure out how to beat Justin Verlander.