Long layoff hasn't kept Dallas Keuchel from helping Braves build NL East lead

Atlanta Braves pitcher Dallas Keuchel walks to the dugout prior to the game against the New York Mets at SunTrust Park. (Adam C. Hagy-USA Today Sports)

ATLANTA – Dallas Keuchel refers to his routine leading to his June 7 signing with the Atlanta Braves as his “own little regular season.”

Keuchel, a former AL Cy young winner, threw simulated games every five days in California to allow for as quick a transition as possible once he signed with a team.

The veteran southpaw only made two rehab starts before joining the Braves, and the last two months have featured solid results despite a few poor outings.

Keuchel, 31, now owns a 4.39 ERA after throwing six scoreless innings in the Braves’ 6-4 win over the Mets on Wednesday night at SunTrust Park.

The lefty allowed five hits while fanning seven, and received a no decision after his bullpen blew a one-run lead before the offense rallied for five in the seventh.

“Outside of (my) last start, I feel I’m as good as I’ve ever been,” Keuchel said Tuesday. “Couple starts where I left runners on and they scored. Name of the game is don’t leave any runners on. You should be alright. That happens sometimes.”

Whether the slow markets the last two winters can be pinned on teams being stingier with their money or players demanding too much, the result has been a marketplace that has left veterans waiting longer than usual to find work.

The qualifying offer that some players have been tagged with also has restricted markets with teams unwilling to forfeit draft picks.

Pitchers such as Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb and Jake Arrieta each signed last March, which prevented them from having a full spring training to prepare. None lived up to expectations in their first seasons with their new squads.

Arrieta had the best season of the three with a 3.96 ERA, but that marked his highest ERA since the 2013 season.

Lynn finished with a 4.77 ERA while Cobb went 5-15 with a 4.90 ERA.

That’s not to say there weren’t those who signed late and had solid seasons with Anibal Sanchez posting a 2.83 ERA with Atlanta after signing in mid-March.

Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel actually waited even longer this year to find new homes, both signing after the draft in June, which removed the draft pick forfeiture associated with the qualifying offer. It made sense for teams to just wait the extra few weeks into June to sign the former All-Stars with no penalty.

Keuchel signed a prorated one-year deal that will net him $13 million while Kimbrel signed with the Cubs for three years and $43 million.

Of the two, Keuchel has fared better with six quality starts in 11 outings. Kimbrel, meanwhile, owns a 5.68 ERA and has landed on the injured list.

“I felt like I was ready to go (to start my season). I don’t make excuses for anything,” Keuchel said Tuesday afternoon at SunTrust Park. “I wouldn’t have only thrown two minor league starts if I needed more.”

Keuchel acknowledged his home run rate is higher than it would like to be while noting the “juiced balls,” and also recognized he isn’t using his slider all that much.

His numbers are mostly in line with his 2018 season with Houston aside from his inflated ERA and WHIP. Keuchel posted a 3.74 ERA last year.

Braves manager Brian Snitker described Keuchel’s first 10 starts as “solid.”

“He’s been fine. He’s healthy and making his starts,” Snitker said before the middle game of a three-game set with the Mets. “(Regarding) How important spring training is, it’s an individualized thing also. Not set in stone for everybody.”

Dallas Keuchel pitches in the first inning against the New York Mets at SunTrust Park. (Adam C. Hagy-USA Today Sports)

In Thursday’s win, Keuchel showcased why Atlanta sought to add him to a roster that arguably is the second-most talented unit in the National League. The Braves (72-50) lead the Nationals by six games, and hold a 10-game edge on the Mets.

Keuchel scattered five singles while keeping the Mets off balance. He sat just 88-90 mph with his sinker and fastball, yet the Mets couldn’t square him up.

Catcher Tyler Flowers noted that Keuchel consistently located at the bottom of the zone, which allowed him to elevate his four-seamer, which the catcher called an “abnormal weapon” since that’s not usually part of the game plan.

Keuchel liked how his two-seamer and change-up improved as the game went on.

He entered the outing knowing he needed to perform after a dud his last time out against Miami in which he allowed eight runs on 10 hits in 3.2 innings.

“I felt I was able to really extend and finish through my pitches,” Keuchel said after a 98-pitch performance. “Not what you draw up in Miami, I didn’t afford myself any much of a leash from here on out. I knew I had to come out and attack the zone. Very hot team, and thankful to make pitches in key moments.”

One of these key moments came in the sixth in two-on, no-out predicament with the Braves, leading 1-0, and Wilson Ramos due up.

While Keuchel didn’t like that he left his 3-2 cutter up in the zone, in his own words, he got “lucky” when Ramos rolled it over and the Braves turned two.

After retiring Todd Frazier, Keuchel had secured his first scoreless outing of the season, an impressive feat for a starter who made his season debut June 21.

“This division is very tough, and you’re seeing it,” Keuchel said. “We’re not even clicking on all cylinders and still winning. That’s the main key of tonight’s game.”

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