HOUSTON -- Shaky beginnings could not deter Dallas Keuchel, who rallied from a sluggish start against the Red Sox to become a central figure in yet another dominant display by the Astros on Friday afternoon.
Game 2 of this best-of-five American League Division Series presented by Doosan, which culminated in a commanding 8-2 Astros victory on the heels of their 8-2 win in Game 1, pitted Keuchel against a Red Sox lineup seeking revenge for its misdoings against Justin Verlander the day prior.
Keuchel wiggled his way through an early swarm of traffic, using aggression to escape it and then punching cruise control to avoid it again. The lefty's admirable efforts lasted 5 2/3 innings and featured seven strikeouts. Keuchel allowed the Red Sox just three hits in that span, resulting in a lone second-inning run on the way to picking up the win.
"They made him work," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Being able to control that second inning was really the difference in the game, because if he gets out of control there or the moment beats him, it's a completely different game."
Keuchel smiled during the inning, because he wasn't about to let anger get the best of him. The southpaw had an aha moment of sorts, after home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez called a ball on an inside cutter to Dustin Pedroia on a 1-2 count, a near-identical pitch Hernandez had deemed a strike just moments before with Xander Bogaerts standing at the plate.
Keuchel, unwilling to unravel, took a walk with his catcher, Brian McCann. One run was already in, Houston hanging onto a 2-1 lead with men still standing on first and second. Keuchel had struck out Bogaerts, and he plotted a similar fate for Pedroia.
"As a pitcher," Keuchel said, "you want every call, so when he didn't call that cutter for a strike, I just smiled, because at that point I knew I was on my game. I knew I was going to make another pitch, and at that point I just let out a smile instead of a getting-mad type of face."
"We just talked about the pitch, what to throw next," McCann said.
They decided on a slider. Pedroia whiffed with might, letting Keuchel off the hook in a game that would afford the Red Sox no more opportunities against the left-hander, who proceeded to retire 11 more batters consecutively before walking Hanley Ramirez with two outs in the sixth and handing the ball to the bullpen.
"They had a good game plan early on, and that was to look over the plate and raise their eye sights, and I wasn't able to pull up the two-seam [fastball]," said Keuchel, who needed 48 pitches to get through the first two innings. "So I just went to Plan B, and that was go extreme in with the cutter and slider, attack them and kind of put them back on their heels. I was fortunate to make an adjustment early enough before it was too late."
The 29-year-old has won each of his three postseason starts, the first two claimed during a shortened 2015 playoff run that left a young Astros group yearning for more.
Now, they're one win shy of advancing to their first AL Championship Series, a nod to their growth in two short years. They're not just better, but deeper, in essentially all areas. Look to the Verlander-clad rotation. The load no longer rests on Keuchel's shoulders alone -- quite literally.
It was a shoulder injury that prematurely ended Keuchel's 2016 season, a year after he took home AL Cy Young Award honors. It was a shoulder injury that prompted thoughts about whether he'd ever return to form again. He did, turning in a 14-5 record and 2.90 ERA during an All-Star 2017 season.
So there was Keuchel, who found himself staring down Hanley Ramirez with two outs in the first inning Friday, a Pedroia walk and a Mookie Betts double the cause of this predicament. The ground-ball artist -- Keuchel led all pitchers in ground-ball percentage (67.3) this season -- went to work as the escape artist, needing just two pitches to retire the Red Sox veteran, who sent a meek grounder to the left side for an inning-ending play.
Carlos Correa's two-run homer in the bottom half of the inning staked the Astros to a 2-0 lead, allowing Keuchel time to regroup. Hernandez offered him the same chance in the second.
"He executed when he needed to, and that's why he's one of the best pitchers in baseball," McCann said. "He's one of those guys that really knows himself through and through."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.