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Keuchel struggles in relief, but spot in playoff 'pen likely

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Dallas Keuchel: relief pitcher.

A month after addressing the reality, that he appeared to be on the outside looking in when it came to landing a spot in the Chicago White Sox' playoff rotation, the team's highest paid pitcher has found an unexpected way to be part of the action as the South Siders chase a championship in October.

Keuchel was deployed out of the bullpen Saturday night, his first true relief appearance in a regular-season game since 2013, his second year in the majors. He has just one postseason relief outing under his belt, when he gave up three runs to the Kansas City Royals in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series.

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It did not go well, Keuchel tagged for a trio of runs in a seventh inning that wouldn't end — and literally didn't end for him, as he was lifted before recording the third out. He allowed four straight base runners to reach with two outs, yielding three run-scoring hits. That forced the White Sox to have to erase a 4-0 deficit in the late innings, which they did, winning a 5-4 thriller on Yoán Moncada's eighth-inning home run.

But considering the way manager Tony La Russa talked about Keuchel before the game, it didn't sound like this was some sort of tryout for the left-hander. After the game, La Russa wasn't bothered much by the way things went, either.

 

"I thought the ball was coming out of his hand good, he had stuff," La Russa said. "He looked healthy to me."

So it seems Keuchel is likely to be part of the relief corps when the ALDS starts next week in Texas. The White Sox see his experience — he's got a World Series ring on his finger from his days pitching for the Houston Astros — as a valuable attribute that can help them in the pitching-change-happy world of postseason baseball.

"I actually have no doubt that he could handle it," La Russa said before the game. "Just look at his experience. Who's more experienced in what we're going to go through (in the playoffs) than Dallas?

"He's taken the role as a starter with all the heat that you could possibly want. ... There won't be a situation that you would bring him into that he'll be intimidated. ... I have no doubts that he'll be ready to compete whenever he's asked."

It's been a surprising turn of events in the regular season's final week. The White Sox' bullpen has been stacked with talented arms all season long. And with the rotation shrinking to three in the playoffs, there didn't seem to be a shortage of guys in that group who could eat up multiple innings at a time, chiefly Reynaldo López and Michael Kopech.

But as mentioned, postseason baseball is a different animal when it comes to bullpen management, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a high number of innings out there to cover if starting pitchers are on expectedly short leashes. Carlos Rodón's late-season health issues, too, have made how much he can provide a mystery. That's where someone who has experience in high-leverage, playoff moments and the ability to throw more than one inning at a time could come in handy.

"Obviously, I'd (have) liked for that seventh inning to go a little bit different," Keuchel said after the game. "I signed over here for a reason, and that's to help this team reach the ultimate goal, and that's the World Series, and to bring a title home to Chicago. So anyway I can help.

"That's been no different throughout my career. When October comes, the lights are the brightest and I'm usually there. It's no different right now."

The question, though, is whether Keuchel can be more effective than he's been throughout much of the regular season.

Keuchel's blunt assessment of his status when it came to making the playoff rotation came at the close of a personally putrid August, in which he had a 7.43 ERA. He was better in September, though still with an ERA approaching 6.00 for that month, perhaps inspiring some confidence by allowing just six total runs in his final three starts.

But those few improved outings don't do a ton to make up for a disappointing season, which ended for Keuchel on Saturday with an ERA of 5.28, a shocking jump after he posted a microscopic 0.99 number and finished fifth in the Cy Young vote in his first year on the South Side in 2020.

 

Still, La Russa seemed pleased by what he saw from Keuchel in the few starts prior to Saturday's relief appearance. And with everything resetting after Sunday's regular-season finale, the skipper with three World Series rings on his fingers will gladly put his faith into another champion.

"He wasn't happy with the way he was pitching, and he thought he might not be on the roster. Come a long way since then," La Russa said. "(I've) been through this many, many times before. You have a starting pitcher who's got experience, you can bring him out of the 'pen into a situation and his experience will help him get through it. And he's got outstanding experience."

And so the guy who was so hungry to get back to the postseason, to avenge his disappointing start against the Oakland Athletics in last fall's AL Wild Card Series, appears set to get a chance he might have thought he already missed out on. This one, should he be called on in the ALDS, would pit him against his former Astros mates.

And it might just come with his White Sox mates' season on the line.

"We've got a lot of guys who kind of have ice in their veins and will withstand some of that crowd noise in Houston," Keuchel said. "I've talked to a few guys about controlling emotions and not letting the jitters or the adrenaline get to them. Adrenaline is a great thing when you can harness it and use it to your advantage. It's the complete opposite when you cannot really use it to your advantage.

"I'm here for a lot of the guys on the pitching staff and even the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball. Just looking to have some fun."

Time to find out whether all that experience, so trumpeted when he signed a multi-year free-agent deal two offseasons ago, can make a championship-level difference.

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