As Dallas Keuchel took the mound in the top of the fourth inning, he did so having retired the first nine Texas Rangers he had faced. The Rangers had resorted to bunt attempts, not because Keuchel is a poor-fielding pitcher–in fact, he is one of the best in the league–but because the normal swings just weren’t doing a whole lot of good. Shin-Soo Choo exemplified the struggle as he led off the top of the fourth. Swing-and-a-miss for strike one, then a foul bunt for strike two, then one ball later, a called third strike.
But then something happened. Keuchel missed his target on a pitch to Elvis Andrus, sending a pitch in at the top of the strike zone rather than the bottom, and the perfect game ended on a single to center field. Then Nomar Mazara doubled to left field. Adrian Beltre was walked (not intentionally, but not entirely unintentionally either) to load the bases, and in no time at all, Keuchel had gone from a perfect game to being in grave danger of losing the 1-0 lead he had been given on a Carlos Beltran sac fly in the bottom of the second.
It’s hard to say who had a better eye on Wednesday night: home plate umpire Mark Wegner or Joey Gallo, who now stood at the plate and watched as Keuchel flirted with the strike zone until Strike Zone Chaperone Wegner stepped in and asked if the pointy-bearded lefty was bothering it. “No,” the zone replied. “He hasn’t touched me.” “Yes, I know,” Wegner replied, peering warily at Keuchel. Just then, Gallo piped up. “It was close, though,” More wary glances. “Indeed,” mused the umpire, stroking his chin. “However, he clearly intended to, unlike the last at-bat.” Eventually, it was decided that the dance was to be declared finished and over, and Joey Gallo walked the strike zone to first base to ensure that Keuchel did not bother it any more. “HAVE HER HOME BY MIDNIGHT," Wegner yelled as the duo skipped down the baseline. "AND NOT A MOMENT LATER!”
The game was tied at one, but it would only stay that way for one pitch before Carlos Gomez singled home two more runs. Then Mike Napoli did beard-on-beard damage, empasizing the inning with a 415-foot three-run home run. It was 6-1, and as Joey Gallo crossed the plate, he dropped off the strike zone at home. “I had a lovely evening,” the strike zone said. Gallo tipped his cap to Wegner and that was that.
We could extend the strike zone metaphor a little further to describe Andrew Cashner’s night, but my Mom reads these columns, so let’s instead leave it here: Cashner’s two-seam fastball was as good tonight as it as been all year, waiting until the last possible instant to duck to the right. Cashner masterfully placed the pitch with pinpoint precision for eight strong innings; sometimes it would start off the plate on the left-hand side, ducking back over the corner just in time to get the strike call. Other times, it would start right down the middle before swerving in towards the right-hand side of the plate, drawing poor contact from the Astros. Then when they least expected it, Cashner would mix in a four-seam fastball with no arm-side break at all. The Astros' swings were meager and did not create good contact all night.
That, of course, was when they swung at all. On six different occasions tonight, the final strike was indicated by Wegner telling a batter that his turn at the plate was over.
Cashner, the Houston-area native, was not only the best he has been this year, but you could, depending on the metric you choose, make the argument that this is the best he has pitched in a few years. According to the Bill James Game score, Cashner’s performance tonight was a 78, his highest since a complete game shutout on September 15th, 2014 clocked in at 89.
There has been nothing not-weird about the Rangers and Astros series in Tampa. Not only is the home team a 1,000-mile drive away from home, wearing their batting practice uniforms, and in the visiting dugout, and not only did we have the oddity of the guy named Dallas pitching for Houston against the guy from Houston pitching for the team from DFW, but in this one, Keuchel’s disaster of a fourth inning was the only one in which he allowed a hit. In the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth innings, Texas couldn’t muster even a single.
Of course, thanks to that fourth inning, not only did Texas have the lead, but Keuchel’s pitch count meant he was finished after six innings. The Rangers managed a couple more runs in the top of the ninth on opposite-field doubles by Choo and Andrus, followed by an opposite-field single by Gallo.
It would usually be an indictment to say that a team looks tired, shellshocked, or distracted. The Astros have appeared to be all three of those things in the last two nights, but given the circumstances, it is beyond understandable. The series will conclude tomorrow at 12:05 Central time, before both teams fly back to Texas; the Rangers to face the Angels, and the Astros to take a day off before matching up against the Mets. Nick Martinez and Collin McHugh are the scheduled starters.