Five summers ago, I did something most people never do on purpose: I took a road trip from Houston to Oklahoma. My then-girlfriend and I, possessors of an ample supply of vacation days but the budgets of college students, decided on a whim to visit the Sooner State, a destination more unknown to us than Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and New Orleans. Oklahoma, with its Americana pitstops, cheap hotels, and a commendable number of art collections—to say nothing of Braum’s—seemed like a palatable getaway in my ‘96 Camry. Tulsa and Oklahoma City turned out to have plenty to offer a young, child-free couple.
Of course, as an (inexplicably to almost everyone at the time) avid Astros fan, I looked forward to another perk of visiting the state where the shopping cart was invented. In 2013, the AAA affiliate of the Astros was the Oklahoma City Redhawks, who’d recently added a young, hope-inspiring outfielder named George Springer. My ex and I devoted a few hours to watch the team defeat the Albuquerque Isotopes, a warm evening punctuated by fireworks that seemed to explode dangerously close to the scoreboard. It was romantic.
In the early innings, I killed my thirst and ballpark-souvenir appetite with one stone by buying a plastic cup of soda. This cup displayed three players who’d recently donned Redhawks jerseys. The first two—Fernando Martinez and a right-handed pitcher whose identity I still don’t know—have been out of MLB since before the Astros were good again. The third player, though, is why I’ve written this article today.
You’ll recognize this left-handed pitcher as Dallas Keuchel, though it may have taken you more than one glance. You probably haven’t seen a beard-less Keuchel since before Brady Aiken was drafted. When I rediscovered this cup the other week, the difference in his face alone seemed to capture how far the Astros have come since the summer of ‘13. (Ironically, by that point in the Redhawks’ season, he wasn’t on their roster anymore, having begun to settle in as a ‘Stro.) At the time, hardcore fans were simply hoping that this seventh-round draft pick could hold down a spot as a swingman or fifth starter. Even one of the team’s beat writers had, well, modest expectations, a stance Keuchel understandably took issue with.
Little did any of the Astros blog-o-sphere imagine that within five years, this particular youngster would play in an All-Star Game, earn a Cy Young, and win a Wild Card playoff—oh, and start Game 1 of the team’s victorious run at a World Series. [ed. note. I imagined!] With Keuchel pitching in what could be his final October as an Astro, his journey, one of the best success stories of this era of Houston baseball, deserves remembrance. We’ve come a long way, Keuchy.