HOUSTON — Dallas Keuchel might not get a "World's Greatest Dad" T-shirt this Father's Day. But he's getting something special.
He gets to pitch against his "son."
Keuchel's Houston homecoming happens Sunday, when he'll pitch against the team he spent seven years playing for, the team he won a Cy Young Award and a World Series ring with. And he'll pitch against former teammate Lance McCullers Jr., who he has a relationship with that's so special to him he's equated Sunday's matchup to a father-son reunion.
"It's going to be a little weird," Keuchel, the Chicago White Sox lefty, said Thursday. "I don't really hang out in the dugout in between innings when I start, but I might sneak a peek just to see him on the mound again.
"I love Lance, he's like my son. Uber prospect when he came up, and I was just kind of cementing myself into a role. So I thought I'd try to help somebody out. Lance is a great dude. I'm glad he's here for a lot more years because he's really, really talented."
Apparently the revelation that the 33-year-old Keuchel considers the 27-year-old McCullers a son has been a big hit in the Houston Astros' clubhouse.
"Some of the guys gave me a hard time," McCullers said Friday. "(Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said), 'Oh, it's a good day for you to face your daddy on Father's Day.' It's been fun. Maldy's had a good time with that quote."
McCullers already has a dad who played big league ball, so he picked a different familial descriptor when talking about Keuchel, but indeed the relationship is a special one for the two pitchers.
"Dallas really took me under his wing when I was young, much beyond the point others do. He looked out for me, and he's like a big brother figure for me," McCullers said. "He's just a great friend, something that will outrun our careers. I think we'll be friends for life. He treated me in a way that, if I would imagine having an older brother, it would be like that."
The two spent four big league seasons together in Houston, Keuchel winning the Cy Young during McCullers' rookie year and the duo winning the World Series with the Astros two years later.
Keuchel's return to Houston has been well celebrated by the Astros. Houston media gathered around the veteran lefty Thursday as fans crowded around the visitors' dugout for a shot at an autograph. The team played a tribute video on the Minute Maid Park jumbotron during the first game of the series as Keuchel was showered with cheers.
The nostalgia has mixed with a little bit of a chip on Keuchel's shoulder, irked by a sour relationship with former general manager Jeff Luhnow and the lack of what he believed was a worthy contract offer. But he called Houston "home" and a place he thought he'd never leave, showing how much his years with the Astros meant to him as he helped the team climb out of rebuilding mode and reach baseball's mountaintop.
"He was the heart and soul of this team and this pitching staff for a long time," McCullers said. "He was one of the guys ... who were here during the bad years and really fought their way through those years and ended up MVPs and Cy Youngs. He carried us for some of those years, carried our pitching staff, had massive performances in the postseason.
"He was our leader. He was one of the leaders when he was here. He did a good job, as all the guys have who have left, of making sure the culture continues and that other guys step up and kind of take over those roles."
Keuchel's trying to go 2-for-2 in turning a rebuilder into a champion with the White Sox, and in his first year as a South Sider, he posted a sub-2.00 ERA and finished fifth in the AL Cy Young vote. His 2021 season has yet to be that kind of dominant, but he's fresh off his finest performance of the season with seven shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Meanwhile, McCullers, too, is pitching as part of a sensational starting staff. The Astros rank second to the White Sox in the AL in starters' ERA, and McCullers is a big reason why Houston's mark is a good one, with a 2.89 ERA in 10 starts.
"He's done all right and going to continue to do really, really good things," Keuchel said. "Sky's the limit for that guy. I'm just waiting on him to win a Cy Young so that we can share some good wine with it."
So in addition to the weekend's fourth exciting starting-pitching matchup, Sunday's game will be a lot more: a homecoming, a reunion, a Father's Day celebration of sorts.
The most important thing each guy hopes it is, though?
"We're both big-time competitors, I know that for sure," McCullers said, "whether it was when we played 'Call of Duty' or whatever else.
"I know we're both going to play our hearts out Sunday."