Oklahoma State Championship – 2006
Keuchel is 18 years old. He is pitching in his third straight state championship game and looking to cap off his high school career with a win.
The first inning begins. He takes his sign from his catcher and…CRACK. A double off the wall allows the game’s first run. As he steps off the mound to collect himself, he realizes it’s now or never. Fight or Flight.
“I think it was just based on the fear of losing. Nobody wants to lose,” said Keuchel. “When I got the call to pitch [in the state championship], I was just so fearful of losing, I think it just elevated my game.”
All of a sudden, Keuchel’s self-motivation turns in to complete domination as a calm, cold confidence overtakes him. The home plate umpire’s calls start flowing like a song. “Strike one,” “Strike two,” “Strike three.” Only one word can describe his performance. Unhittable.
“You can see it in his demeanor during games. He just can’t stand to lose,” said Tony Scardino, former head coach at Bishop Kelly High School. “He had “ice water in his veins” and I still believe that today. Ice Water.”
Keuchel’s stellar performance his senior year at Bishop Kelley High School didn’t impress everyone. When the all-state roster came out in 2006, his name was not on it. The disappointment increased his desire to succeed despite the rejection.
“I’m a very confident guy, but I never expect or never feel like I’m due anything. For me not to be picked all-state even though I was 10-0 with a sub- 1.00 ERA, not that I can remember or anything,” he said laughing. “…not being picked all-state is something I still take with me.
Fear wouldn’t let Keuchel stop with a high school state championship. He can’t stay in high school forever. He accepted a scholarship to the University of Arkansas and the pressures associated with playing Div. I baseball.
The University of Arkansas
Freshman year in Fayetteville is filled with adjustments. He’s not in Tulsa anymore and college baseball is a different game. Keuchel starts his collegiate career with a 5.88 ERA. Bishop Kelly seems like a distant memory as the fear of failure pushes him harder than ever before.
These new struggles are unfamiliar for Keuchel.
He never struggled like this, but no player goes their entire career without some type of struggle. The calm, cold confidence he had in high school wasn’t gone, but he had to work to find it again. Whether it was an extra bullpen session or extra time in the weight room, he regained his old swagger through hard work.
“I think he just learned through experience. If you look at most Div. I pitchers, they all struggle early,” said Arkansas Head Baseball Coach Dave Van Horn. “He learned how to get good hitters out. He’s smart, coachable and has a really good work ethic.”
He went 9-3 and cut his ERA in half, propelling the Razorbacks to the College World Series. While Keuchel was dominating the NCAA, major league scouts were taking notice. The Houston Astros chose Keuchel in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.
The Houston Astros
Fast forward four years. Keuchel gets a shot in the Astros starting rotation. The familiar struggles of a new level are back and so is the fear driving him to success. Keuchel refuses to let inconsistency overtake his dreams of greatness.
“I don’t think it’s something your born with,” said Keuchel. “But it is definitely something that you can gain and develop.”
Opening Day – 2015
Keuchel is on the mound as the Astros opening day starter and the ace of the Astros pitching staff. He’s looking to rejuvenate a franchise buried at the bottom of its division for the last decade. He’s been through the struggles of a young pitcher in Major League Baseball. There is only one thing left to do. Dominate.
Present Day – 2016
Keuchel went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA while racking up 216 strikeouts and led the Astros to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. This time his performance cannot be overlooked. Keuchel is awarded the 2015 American League Cy Young award and his second consecutive Gold Glove award.
“To be in a position like we were, to be in a position like I was, it’s even more special because of the hardships we’ve faced the last five to six years,” said Keuchel. “It’s been a long haul, but it’s been enjoyable to see the process and the joy that guys had last year.”
Take away all the accolades and awards. Remove the money, fame and notoriety. Behind the well- shaped beard and nice smile, the kid from Bishop Kelly High School with ice water in his veins is waiting for another shot to prove people wrong.
“There’s always gonna be doubters, there’s always gonna be people who say ‘you can’t do it,’ but it doesn’t bother me anymore,” said Keuchel. “I just take it with me and I keep it in my back pocket as motivation.”