NEW YORK — Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros defied expectations all season long. Facing his biggest test yet, the bearded ace beat the odds and the Yankees once again.
Pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, Keuchel baffled New York for six innings of three-hit ball. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez homered, and the Astros won 3-0 Tuesday night in the American League wild-card game.
The orange-clad Astros, who secured their spot in this winner-take-all game on the last day of the regular season, advanced to the AL Division Series. They will face the defending AL champion Royals, starting Thursday night in Kansas City.
“To come to Yankee Stadium and play that well was truly remarkable,” said Keuchel, the AL’s only 20-game winner.
Aggressive from the start in their initial playoff appearance as an American League club — and first since being swept by the White Sox in the 2005 World Series — the Astros came out swinging against Masahiro Tanaka in front of a revved-up Yankee Stadium crowd.
Rasmus sent Tanaka’s first pitch of the second inning soaring into deep right field. Gomez, who only had five plate appearances after missing nearly two weeks with a strained chest muscle in mid-September, connected on the first offering of the fourth.
“That really settled me down, and that’s who we are,” Keuchel said. “We hit a lot of home runs, pitch well and play defence.”
AL hits leader Jose Altuve had an RBI single off All-Star reliever Dellin Betances in the seventh.
Reliever Tony Sipp walked one, and Will Harris and Luke Gregerson were each perfect for an inning to finish the three-hitter. The boos from the 50,113 stunned fans in the crowd grew with each out as Gregerson closed for a save.
The Astros raced to an area between first and second after Brian McCann grounded out to end it and jumped up and down in a big scrum. As he was coming off the field, Keuchel pumped his fists toward a group of cheering Astros supporters in orange shirts — and a few in big black beards — behind the visiting dugout.
It was a celebration a few years in the making. The Astros had averaged 104 losses in their previous four seasons.
“Now we get to go to Kansas City. It’s going to be some grind-it-out baseball,” Rasmus said. “We have to come in there the way we came in tonight. It’s going to be fun.”
In a matchup of two teams that surprised many by building big division leads before wasting them late, the upstart Astros, just two years removed from a 111-loss season, looked the more comfortable team in the October limelight.
They clowned around during pregame introductions, then stayed loose the whole game.
The Yankees lost six of seven to close the regular season. And despite all the talk of a playoff reset for the struggling lineup, they went bust against a new nemesis in their first — and only — post-season game of the post-Derek Jeter era.
“Just didn’t get it done,” manager Joe Girardi said.
Fans taunted the 27-year-old Keuchel the moment he walked to the outfield for warmups. Then he toyed with the Yankees from the first batter, striking out Brett Gardner looking.
“I felt like I had never been on the mound before with the adrenaline I had,” Keuchel said.
Gardner, Brian McCann, Chris Young and Girardi all had words with plate umpire Eric Cooper as Keuchel cruised through New York’s lineup for the third time this season.
The AL Cy Young Award contender held the Yankees scoreless for 16 innings in two regular-season starts. On this much bigger stage, the lefty was just as confounding, dropping his slider and two-seam fastball seemingly wherever he wanted in striking out seven as nearly all his teammates and coaches stood along the dugout railing for every pitch.
When he gave up two singles in the sixth — bringing the crowd to its feet with Alex Rodriguez stepping into the batter’s box — manager A.J. Hinch took a walk to the mound to give Keuchel a breather. Keuchel responded by getting A-Rod to fly out lazily to centre field for his final out.
Keuchel is the first starter with a scoreless post-season start on three days’ rest since Josh Beckett pitched a shutout for the Marlins at Yankee Stadium in the clinching Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.
Tanaka struggled with the long ball all season, giving up 25 homers in 24 starts this year. He only allowed two more hits in five innings but matched a season high with three walks. He struck out three.