Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 8, 2015

Keuchel And Arrieta Stake Their Cy Young Claims

While the winners of the Great Game’s major individual awards won’t be announced until November, the votes are already in. Balloting by the selected members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, one representing each big league franchise for each award, is based on regular season performance only; what happens in the postseason doesn’t matter. That’s only fair of course, since not every contender for MVP, Rookie or Manager of the Year, or the Cy Young Award is necessarily on a team that is taking part in the playoffs. But for those that are, October baseball is a chance to validate the vote of the writers who favored them.

To that end two pitchers who are strong candidates for their respective league’s Cy Young got the 2015 postseason started this week by going on the road and reminding both the home team and fans everywhere just why they may win some hardware next month. In the process the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta likely had writers who failed to put them at the top of their Cy Young ballots second-guessing their votes.

Tuesday evening Keuchel led Houston onto the Great Game’s most famous postseason stage. But at The Stadium in the Bronx, against the team with twice as many World Series appearances and more than twice as many championships as the next closest franchise, the 27-year old left hander was unawed by either the moment or the opposition. Pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, Keuchel dominated the Yankees through six scoreless innings. He surrendered just three singles and one walk while striking out seven. He began the game by fanning Brett Gardner, the first of three times that Keuchel sent New York’s center fielder walking back to the dugout.

Only two Yankees reached second base, both times with two men out, and New York had more than a single runner on in just one inning, the 6th. In the closest thing to a threat that the Yankees were able to mount, Alex Rodriguez came to the plate in that inning with Chris Young on second and Carlos Beltran on first. But A-Rod swung at the first pitch he saw, an 87 mile per hour cutter, and lifted a lazy fly ball to short center to end the inning.

Keuchel’s performance was as rare as it was outstanding. He was the first playoff starter to deliver a scoreless outing on short rest since Josh Beckett blanked the Yankees in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series. The game was the 24th postseason elimination contest in Yankees history, but the first one in which New York failed to get at least five hits. It was also just the second such contest in which the Yankees failed to get an extra base hit. The Astros playoff history is considerably shorter than the Yankees, but Keuchel fares well against some pretty elite company. He was the fourth Houston pitcher to start a postseason elimination game, joining Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. Keuchel is the only one of the four to turn in a scoreless performance.

Deep in their hearts Yankee fans may have feared this result. This was the third time their team faced Keuchel this season, and a clear pattern had already been established. With his six innings of work on Tuesday the left hander stretched his string of scoreless innings against New York to twenty-two. When Houston scored on solo homers by Colby Rasmus in the 2nd and Carlos Gomez in the 4th, the game was as good as over. Jose Altuve added a late RBI single and three relievers shut down New York the rest of the way, as Houston advanced to face Kansas City in the ALDS.

One night later Arrieta and the Cubs were in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates were hosting the NL Wild Card game for the third straight year. Arrieta was even more dominant than Keuchel had been, throwing a complete game shutout in which he allowed just four hits while striking out eleven. Arrieta got all the support he needed from a 1st inning run before Pirates hurler Gerrit Cole was able to record an out and two later home runs by Dexter Fowler and Kyle Schwarber. At one point those two, batting atop the Cubs order, were a combined five for five against Cole.

The quick start by Chicago quieted the largest crowd ever at PNC Park and allowed Arrieta to go to work. He was quickly ahead 0-2 with seven of the first ten batters he faced. His eleven strikeouts tied him with Kerry Wood for the franchise mark of K’s in a postseason game. Like Keuchel one night earlier in the Bronx, Arrieta’s performance in Pittsburgh was a unique gem. The 29-year old is now the only pitcher in postseason history to shut out an opponent while fanning at least ten and not walking a batter.

After retiring thirteen of fourteen Pirates, Arrieta faced his only serious challenge in the 6th. He gave up a leadoff single to Travis Snider and one out later hit Josh Harrison. But he then got Andrew McCutchen to tap a double play ball to the left side of the infield, only to see shortstop Addison Russell boot the ball, thus loading the bases. Undeterred, Arrieta induced another grounder to Russell from Sterling Marte, and this time the shortstop started the inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.

With the 4-0 victory Arrieta also stopped a nine-game postseason losing streak by the Cubs, dating to that memorable Game 4 of the NLCS. Chicago, winners of 97 regular season games, sends Pittsburgh, winners of 98, home for the winter and prepares to face St. Louis, winners of an even 100.

Next month, when both league’s Cy Young Award winners are announced, perhaps the American League honor will go to the Blue Jays’ David Price. Perhaps the National League winner will be Zack Greinke of the Dodgers. If so, the designation of this season’s best pitcher in each league will be bestowed on a worthy recipient. But as postseason play got underway this week, Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta offered compelling reminders of why this year’s votes for the Cy Young are likely to be so very close.

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