• Exclusives

    Keuchel Debut Leaves Strong First Impression

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ROME, Ga. – About 25 minutes before 7 p.m. Monday, Logan Brown walked out of the Rome Braves clubhouse, took the field near the left-field corner at State Mutual Stadium, and spent a few moments crouched along the foul line some 30 feet shy of the warning track. The 22-year-old Single-A catcher certainly goes through this routine on a regular basis, wearing uniform No. 99, collecting his thoughts in the moments before that night’s starting pitcher emerges from the locker room.

    But this was no ordinary night for the 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft. He would be on the receiving end of a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, upon whom the eyes of a championship-starved fanbase would hang upon every pitch, every moment. This was not your typical Monday night in the South Atlantic League.

    Then again, it’s not every day somebody like Dallas Keuchel rolls through this Northwest Georgia town.

    Keuchel, four days removed from inking a one-year, $13-million deal with the Atlanta Braves, emerged a few minutes later, wearing his customary No. 60. As a near-capacity crowd filed in for the series opener against the Charleston River Dogs, one of the free-agent market’s biggest fish made his Braves organization debut on a humid, yet pleasant night. The rains that washed away Keuchel’s scheduled debut Saturday at Triple-A Gwinnett had disappeared, and for the first time since last season’s American League championship series with Houston, the 31-year-old pitched in a competitive contest.

    The results: Predictable, yet impressive.

    Keuchel allowed just one hit across seven strong innings, walking one hitter, striking out nine, and leaving a 0-0 game after throwing 55 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Yes, a veteran of 183 major-league starts with 51 2/3 innings pitched in the postseason figures to fare well against a lineup comprised mostly of players drafted in 2017 and 2018. And the stuff did overwhelm at times.

    But what really stood out to me was just how crisp Keuchel was in his first game action in 237 days.

    Keuchel was efficient. He got 10 ground-ball outs. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter – a seven-pitch walk to Canaan Smith with one out in the seventh. He induced plenty of weak contact. He threw 10 pitches or fewer in each of the first six innings. His rhythm on this night was akin to sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, waving at folks creeping by on the dirt road out front. Nice and relaxed and smooth. Easy, breezy.

    There were plenty of swings and misses, sure. And that was to be expected. But Keuchel dotted both sides of the plate with an impressive frequency given the layoff. The breaking stuff was heavy, low in the zone, hard to square up. He spent plenty of time the past two months throwing simulated games, but nothing simulates taking the field for an actual contest. Would he struggle with command? How would he handle working in and out of situations?

    Keuchel showed it from the onset, getting Brandon Lockridge to roll over a breaking ball and hit a harmless three-hopper in front of the pitcher’s mound on the game’s third pitch. Lockridge stumbled coming out of the batter’s box. It would be clear on this night, there would be no stumbles from Atlanta’s newly minted rotation linchpin.

    In the second, Keuchel gave up a one-out single to Max Burt, which was a good thing in that it gave him a chance to work out of the stretch. He induced a force out on a grounder to second and a three-pitch strikeout. He struck out six over the next four innings, the only ball hit in the air in that span a deep flyout from Anthony Seigler, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft who hails from Cartersville, Ga. – which I drove through en route to Rome.

    Keuchel needed 17 pitches to get through the seventh, rallying from a 2-0 count to strike out Seigler leading off the frame, and after walking Smith, getting a deep fly ball for the second out and a rolled-over grounder to short to end the inning and his night.

    The question now is what’s next? Keuchel’s next turn would come Saturday. There is no need for him to pitch again for Rome. Gwinnett is on the road at Syracuse this weekend; big-league teams want their big-league talent pitching at home when getting tuned up in the minors. Double-A Mississippi is home with Mobile, however. Certainly, a big part of determining the next step is how does Keuchel feel when he wakes up Tuesday, when he wakes up Wednesday.

    Throwing to hitters in a simulated game is one thing. Pitching against an opposing lineup – even in Northwest Georgia on a Monday night in June – is something different. Conventional wisdom dictates Keuchel will get one more start in the minors before making his Atlanta debut. Braves manager Brian Snitker said as much before Monday’s 13-7 victory over Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park.

    But allow me to close with this thought, one that certainly is being mulled over by Braves fans near and far as Monday night approaches Tuesday morning. Kevin Gausman could not escape the third inning in Atlanta’s series opener against the Pirates, making it three awful outings in a row for the right-hander. The Braves will awaken Tuesday morning tied for first place in the NL East, having pulled even with Philadelphia following their 19th victory in the past 28 games and the Phillies’ 13-8 home loss Monday to Arizona.

    Guess who visits the capital city of the Peach State this weekend? The aforementioned Phillies, who dismantled the Braves in the first three games of the season in Eastern Pennsylvania the final weekend of March. Gausman’s next turn in the rotation? Saturday, a 7:20 p.m. first pitch against those Phillies at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75.

    Facing Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins is far different from facing a Sally-League lineup, yes. But you can’t help but think that Braves fans aren’t the only ones at least wondering about a Keuchel debut start for the Braves coming under the Saturday night lights with the NL East race squarely in focus.

    Whether it happens or not, Keuchel will be here soon.

    And after his performance Monday, we can’t wait.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.