Doug Gottlieb doesn’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but he also doesn’t want to mislead his listeners. Since starting 18-7, the Houston Astros have lost six of their last eight games. Believe it or not, they actually have a losing record at home (8-9).

That’s the bad news.

The good news? The Astros (20-13) still lead the Angels (16-17) by four games in the AL West, and Dallas Keuchel (4-0, 1.39 ERA, 0.85 WHIP) has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball. In fact, based purely on numbers, Keuchel is an early favorite to start the All-Star Game for the AL.

How does that sound?

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good, but I’m more concerned with how our team’s playing and (whether the team gets a victory) when I start,” Keuchel said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “So anytime I can go out and help the team, that’s my main priority – getting us as many wins as possible.”

The Astros are 6-1 in Keuchel’s starts, with the only loss being a 2-1 setback against Texas on May 4 – a game in which Keuchel allowed one run in eight innings. The guy has been virtually unhittable this season thanks to his two-seam fastball. He runs it on his lefties, and he runs it in on righties, inducing ground balls 63 percent of the time.

How does he do that?

“I don’t know,” Keuchel said. “I think that’s more for the sabermetric guys to kind of dissect and have a blast with. But I think a lot of it has to do with experience and trying to figure out what’s the best placement for a pitch. I want to be the best pitcher I possibly can. So anytime I can command the ball – any type of pitch – it’s going to help me be a better pitcher in the long run.”

The 27-year-old has pitched like an ace since last season, when he went 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings.

“Growing up, I was always kind of the guy that pitched in big games in Little League, and coach would always put a lot of (trust) in me to do that,” Keuchel said. “So I think growing up, it was just in me. A lot of the experience up here facing basically the best hitters on the planet – you got to either sink or swim. I’m not trying to have my career shortened just because I get scared by different guys coming up like A-Rod or Pujols or Trout. You got to be able to make a pitch at any point. It doesn’t matter who it is.”

Keuchel made his major league debut in 2012, in the midst of a 107-loss season. In his second year, the Astros lost 111 games. Last year, they turned the corner – going 70-92 – and this year they look like a playoff team.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Keuchel said of the turnaround. “Sometimes when you get drafted and you’re fortunate enough to play in Major League Baseball, you don’t really see the grinds on an everyday basis. When you’re not good, it’s not fun. By no means was it fun from pretty much 2012 until last year. It was embarrassing just based on the product we put out there on the field for the fans. But we were trying our hardest.

“Some of these guys have caught on,” Keuchel continued. “Some guys have grown. Right now, we’re at the phase where we’re winning. You see the product on the field now, and it’s like, I can’t believe this team was that bad just two years ago. But it’s a credit to our front office. It’s a credit to the guys on the field getting better each and every day. And some of the guys we brought in have won and it’s really rubbing off on some of the other guys. We’re competing our butts off every night.”

All good stuff.

But you didn’t think Gottlieb would let Keuchel go before asking him about his beard, did you? The Tulsa native hasn’t shaved in over a year. Doesn’t food ever get stuck in it?

“Honestly, there hasn’t been much food caught in it, but I’m very conscious of it,” Keuchel said. “I’m constantly using multiple napkins for eating sessions. It’s one of those things, it really is kind of annoying, but at the same time, the food is so good.”

Keuchel said he trims his beard every so often – “just to keep it healthy and growing.” He also pampers it quite a bit.

“I shampoo and condition it pretty much every day – maybe even twice a day,” he said. “I’m pretty much a germaphobe. (I use) a lot of products, a lot of beard oil. I think it’s healthier than the average beard.”


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