OAKLAND, Calif. — Coming into the 2021 campaign, Dallas Keuchel was looking for postseason redemption.
With just a few weeks left in the regular season, though, it's a wonder if he'll get his chance.
Back at the site of his disappointing playoff outing a year ago, Keuchel gave up the same number of runs he did that October day in 2020. Except this time, it didn't come as the same kind of shock, the veteran lefty tagged for five runs for the fourth consecutive start in the Chicago White Sox' 5-1 defeat Wednesday night.
It was after his final start in August, a shellacking at the hands of the Crosstown-rival Chicago Cubs, that he addressed the seeming reality, that he had work to do in September if he was going to crack the White Sox' playoff rotation. That work is not off to a promising start, Keuchel allowing a combined 11 runs in his first two starts of the regular season's final month.
The difference this time around was that Keuchel and manager Tony La Russa saw real progress from a pitcher trying to get himself right enough to crack the group the White Sox send to the postseason. Fans might not like hearing all the good things the two had to say about an outing that ended with five runs on the scoreboard. But if the goal is to be playing his best baseball by the end of September, a night like Wednesday is apparently the way to make that happen.
"I felt normal. I felt like this was a good one," Keuchel said, "but we've got five runs back on the board. It's not going right in any situation. There wasn't a ton of hard hit balls tonight. They just seemed to find holes, and they did. ... Consistency was there tonight. I felt like myself."
"Today was a day where he made some progress," La Russa said. "He made a lot more good pitches than not."
Getting Keuchel back to being himself would be quite the plus for the White Sox, who could conceivably have an embarrassment of riches to choose from as they plot their pitching plans for the postseason. Despite the woeful results that Keuchel has experienced of late, his track record is a long one, and he's got the playoff success to instill trust in his manager.
White Sox fans saw what Keuchel is capable of last season, which is why the five runs he allowed to these same Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of the American League Division Series were so surprising. Keuchel was magnificent during the shortened 60-game season, his first in a White Sox uniform, finishing with a 0.99 ERA and placing fifth in the AL Cy Young vote.
Considering he signed with the White Sox to repeat the rebuilder-to-champion metamorphosis he experienced with the Houston Astros, failing with the season on the line didn't sit too well, providing motivation as he entered his second year on the South Side.
"Honestly, the way (Lucas) Giolito pitched that first game, I was trying to replicate that. Obviously, it didn't go as planned," Keuchel said in February. "If we clinch (in) Game 2, we're in the Division Series, so I take a lot of blame going into Game 3 because of the unknown of a lot of our guys not having playoff experience.
"That left a sour taste in my mouth, but that's something that I used for this offseason, just to get back to it and thinking about a bigger picture this year."
The White Sox have that bigger picture in their sights, of course. They've got a massive lead in the AL Central standings and are among the game's legitimate World Series contenders.
One problem, though, when it comes to Keuchel's redemption plan: He might not be a part of it.
Keuchel well realizes how the pitchers around him have thrown this season, bluntly pointing out after that Cubs start that he's been the worst of an otherwise dominant group. Giolito, Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodón have made themselves postseason locks with the high-quality campaigns they've turned in, and Dylan Cease has turned his flashes of brilliance into enough consistency of late that he looks like a potentially devastating playoff weapon.
Even if Keuchel's struggles weren't as severe as they are right now, he might be on the outside looking in.
But Keuchel's struggles are severe right now. Though the inability of the White Sox' bats to cash in on scoring chances might have had more to do with the outcome Wednesday — they went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position — the A's are fighting for their own place in the playoffs, and giving up five runs to a team of October caliber is not the way to win a ballgame.
In a dozen starts since the calendar flipped to July, the left-hander has a massive 7.32 ERA and has allowed 13 home runs in 59 innings, enough already, perhaps, to have pushed him to the edge of that playoff pitching mix.
"The bigger picture is always in my mind, and that's what going in, from Start 1 to now, has been about," Keuchel said. "Now I've gotten myself into a rut, especially the last four starts now, even though I felt really, really good tonight. My past eight, nine starts have not been very good at all as a cumulative whole.
"As a starting pitcher, I think any point in time you can either get in a really good groove or you can kind of sink yourself. ... The process of getting back to who I am, who my career has been, I felt like I was there tonight. That was a huge step in the right direction. ... I feel like I'm there. Whatever happens happens."
The White Sox might well be on their way to redemption this fall. They've got the closer the A's used to eliminate them last season in their bullpen now. They've already claimed victory in the season series against the A's. They're just a handful of wins away from securing a postseason berth and the division championship. They could throw the game's best collection of starting pitchers at opponents all October long.
It will be hard to find redemption if he's not pitching. And he has a short amount of time, just a few starts remaining, to make his case that he should be when the playoffs roll around.
"I feel like I'm headed really, really in the right direction back to where I need to be," Keuchel said. "We'll see the next four starts."