Astros’ season depends on Keuchel’s recovery

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros had their best first quarter ever, and they were eager to show their superiority over the visiting American League champions, the Cleveland Indians.

Three games and three losses later, the Astros have the look of a wounded aircraft, an engine fluttering. Their command in the AL West Division now seems shaky, with the Texas Rangers winning 10 games in a row.

So there’s new fire to the Rangers-Astros rivalry, which has been the state’s most intense ever since the Longhorns-Aggies went kerplunk, thank you Steve Patterson.

Dave Raymond, voice of the Rangers, couldn’t help chortling about the Astros’ nosedive. Speaking on KRLD-FM in Dallas, he observed: “Two weeks ago, the Astros had won the division. They were already in the World Series, and they were planning the parade.

“It was laughable the way people were reacting in Houston.”

If Raymond seems to be overindulging in schadenfreude, delighting in the Astros’ misery, it’s at least partly personal. He was fired four years ago as Astros’ play by play announcer.

He was an acquired taste I never quite acquired, but he has the right to enjoy his tormentors’ comeuppance.

And even granting his biased perspective, he sounded annoyingly accurate to me: “And then we’re talking about burying the Rangers. . . . OK, we were nine games back. Now we’re what, five and a half? . . . They just saw their ace go on the Disabled List for 10 days, and who knows if he comes off in ten days?”

Indeed, who can predict the recovery time for Dallas Keuchel’s pinched nerve in his neck any more than we can forecast the return date of any other disabled pitcher?

Tell me again: How long was Colin McHugh going to be out with “a little tightness” in the elbow?

Right now the Astros’ starting rotation is led by the rapidly improving – and just flat-out rapid – Lance McCullers Jr. He can be a legitimate ace, hasn’t allowed an earned run in his latest 19 innings.

And Charlie Morton might be able to impersonate a No. 2, being that he’s 5-3 and striking out more than a batter an inning.

But after that, the Astros, with or without the long-scuffling McUgh, do seem less stout in the starting rotation than the hotly pursuing Rangers.

After Morton, the Astros’ rotation falls sharply to Joe Musgrove. General manager Jeff Luhnow counted on a strong year from the towering 24-year-old righty, but he’s been a horror so far. His 5.63 ERA can keep another of their sputtering starters, Mike Fiers, feeling secure with his 5.16.

But give the homestanding team credit for rallying with an all-hands-on-deck effort Monday night against the Detroit Tigers. To fill in for Keuchel, manager A.J. Hinch called on starter-by-committee and came up with a 1-0, one-hit shutout.

Brad Peacock was the official starter but was held to the tightest of leashes: 4 1/3 innings. Then came 2 2/3 perfect innings from Chris Devenski, followed by the usual closeout of Will Harris (his 8th hold) and Kenny Giles (12th save) who’s looking like a Comeback of the Year candidate.

Hinch may have the right idea giving the fourth and fifth starts to his trusty bullpen. Here’s another idea: Fiers and Musgrove on the next flight to Fresno. If possible, United Airlines.

This arrangement should get the Astros by until they can rent somebody else’s ace when the trade deadline nears. We will see if the frugal Jim Crane spends the way his predecessor, the frugal Drayton McLane, once did to secure, temporarily, a future Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson.

Even though all three of last weekend’s losses to the Indians were by at least two runs, the Astros remain the most respected team in the major leagues – No. 1 in ESPN’s power poll.

One of the charms of baseball is its volatility. Imagine what three straight home losses would do to you in the college basketball rankings. To believe in baseball is to believe in redemption, that the best team prevails only after overcoming stretches of disheartening adversity along the way.

Monday’s tenacious rescue by the Houston bullpen may turn out to be one of those iconic moments that can define a season.

I agree with ESPN that the Astros are still this season’s best team, but all bets are off if Keuchel has any more setbacks. He has the best record in the majors, 7-0, and lowest ERA, 1.80. His flaw is that he’s courageous to a fault, meaning less than honest about his health.

At times last season he would grimace or stretch his left arm, clearly in discomfort. He insisted he could pitch, and he did, but not very well. He might have done better taking some time off. He ended up on the DL anyway. Let’s hope he and the Astros get it right this time.


Alan Truex formerly covered the Astros beat for the Houston Chronicle.

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