WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When his outing was over Sunday afternoon, Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel was all smiles in the dugout as he got handshakes and high-fives from teammates. If that wasn't a sign about how good he felt, then the results certainly did the trick.
Keuchel fired three scoreless innings, allowing one hit, in his first Grapefruit League start of the season in Sunday's 5-4 loss to the Nationals at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He threw 35 pitches (21 strikes) and recorded a strikeout.
After missing the final month of last season with shoulder inflammation and being eased into throwing this spring, Keuchel cleared a hurdle by returning to game action.
"I was a little nervous going out there," Keuchel said. "Once you get hurt for the first time, you kind of appreciate when you're actually healthy. I didn't really know what to expect. I'm as strong as ever, but at the same time, I hadn't really faced competition where my body was going to give me more adrenaline. There was going to be a few pitches let go percentage-wise, and I responded well. I knew I was back, and I look to build on it."
After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2015, Keuchel went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts while battling shoulder soreness the entire '16 season. It wasn't until he said something in August that he was shut down and prescribed rest. Keuchel said on Sunday he's throwing "free and easy" compared to any point last year, when it was hit or miss how he was going to feel.
"That's a good sign," Keuchel said. "I think I was actually a little bit stronger than what I expected. I got behind some guys, so I have to tighten things up with that, but overall a good first outing. We'll look to build some more stamina over the next five days."
Keuchel worked on fastball and cutter command and felt he tightened some of that immediately. He was focusing on getting back to being consistent down and away with his fastball and changeup, where he was all over the map last year.
"If I can command the fastball, everything else works off that," Keuchel said.
The 29-year-old sat between 87-89 mph with his fastball, which was down a tick last year from the 89-91 mph he posted during his Cy Young season in 2015, but the velocity should come as the spring progresses.
"I felt like last year, good gracious, it took me 45 minutes to warm up, so by the time the first pitch came out of my hand, I'm still in warm-up mode," Keuchel said. "So initially, the body warmed up, the shoulder was feeling good. I can immediately tell. Just getting to the bullpen, it was free and easy. It was enjoyable instead of worrying about if my arm was going to give out or how to get this pitch to home plate."
Astros manager A.J. Hinch said that while Keuchel's command wasn't quite as good as it could have been, it was encouraging to see him get through three innings and accumulate outs.
"That's as much as we could ask for out of him," Hinch said. "His stuff looked pretty good for the first time in real competition, and he came out of it feeling pretty good. He's got some things to work on, but a pretty good day for him."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.