This week, Dallas Keuchel mentioned two particular joys of his job as a Houston Astros starting pitcher. One is when he takes the mound for the first inning, his nerves cresting within him. He likes to take one deep breath and soak in the stadium's atmosphere. The other is when he warms up in the opposing bullpen and hears alcohol-tinged heckling. Depending on the city, a collection of fans and accompanying concessions might have already materialized, funnel-cake fragrance coursing through the air.
Before Wednesday's fifth game of the American League Championship Series, extra security surrounded Yankee Stadium's visiting bullpen, as fans had tried to pelt Houston's pitchers with food one night earlier. Twenty minutes before the first pitch, Keuchel walked inside and heard a cluster of insults, many mocking his lengthy beard. When he removed his cap for the national anthem, revealing his bald spot, one Yankee supporter recommended he locate some Rogaine.
As Keuchel finished throwing, a few fans repeatedly shouted his sister's name. He high-fived some teammates and set off for the dugout. Soon, his night would be ruined, and the Astros' chances in this series might have vanished alongside it.
Despite his attempts to embrace the moment, despite his history of success in this stadium, Keuchel surrendered four runs and could not finish five innings. The New York Yankees captured their third consecutive victory, 5-0, at their sold-out ballpark and earned two tries to win once at Houston's Minute Maid Park.
"New York," Keuchel said, "is no joke."
It started in the second inning, when Keuchel left a fastball over the middle to Starlin Castro and the Yankees' second baseman snapped it for a double. Keuchel later described it as the only of his 86 pitches he'd like over. He then fell behind 2-and-0 to Greg Bird and fired a fastball along the inside edge, which Bird shot to right for a run-scoring single.
The next inning, Aaron Judge smacked a run-scoring double down the left-field line. Two innings later, Gary Sanchez whacked a ball in the same direction. Marwin Gonzalez kept it to a single, but it scored a run nonetheless. A Didi Gregorius grounder that inched past Jose Altuve at second base scored another. After Keuchel's exit, a vicious Sanchez solo shot in the seventh supplied New York's last run.
After George Springer's leadoff flyout, Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka did not record another out in the air until the sixth, when Altuve and Yuli Gurriel blasted balls to the center-field warning track. In total, he induced 10 groundouts and notched eight strikeouts. Wielding his slithering splitter, he held the Astros hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position, repeatedly pumping his fist after eliminating tense situations with strikeouts.
"He talks to himself and does all this crazy stuff," Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said. "The next thing you know, the ball just disappears on batters."
In his most important stateside start to date, Tanaka's seven scoreless innings were a dominant effort. Only one Yankee, Tommy Kahnle, was required in relief.
In Game 1 of this series, Tanaka opposed Keuchel in Game 1 and permitted two runs in six innings. Keuchel lasted seven scoreless then, but neither team indicated the differences in his two performances were vast.
"We hit the mistakes tonight," Frazier said. "Last time, we didn't."
After a Thursday travel day, these teams will meet again Friday, with the Astros' season at risk. The Yankees will start Luis Severino, their best pitcher this season. He exited his last start early because manager Joe Girardi feared his shoulder might be hurt, but never went for testing, and the team says he's fine now. Houston will send out Justin Verlander, who threw a masterful complete game in this series' second game.
The venue change may prove significant. The Astros admitted they had never heard a ballpark reach decibel levels as loud as this one became during the Yankees' Tuesday comeback. They admitted they had heard hounding here some of them would not be willing to repeat "in 20 years", as George Springer said.
And, they acknowledged, they ceded far too many two-out runs. Sixty-five percent of New York's output this series has unfolded with two outs already recorded.
"The playoffs bring some different challenges, some different obstacles, we have to overcome," Keuchel said. "We'll look to figure out what we need to do. It's pretty obvious: limit the two-out hits from the Yankees, and get some timely hitting from our guys."