Rounding Third: Is Dallas Keuchel the AL's best pitcher?

( - The Houston Astros' five-year plan appears to be three years ahead of schedule.

Jose Altuve. George Springer, Jon Singleton. Carlos Correa. Mark Appel. The list goes on. These are the names that were going to be behind the eventual turnaround in Houston.

One name that also was mentioned, but often overlooked in those discussions was left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Yet the former seventh-round pick is now the reason the Astros are penning the best story in baseball and is arguably the best pitcher in the American League at the moment.

Keuchel improved to 6-0 earlier this week with another brilliant performance against the Oakland Athletics as he allowed just an unearned run over seven innings to lower his ERA to an AL-best 1.67.

The 27-year-old pitcher is the first Houston pitcher to start a season with six wins since Roger Clemens was 9-0 in 2004. Keuchel also extended his career-long winning streak to eight games, dating to last season.

"I think he was as sharp as he was early in the year," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "They made him work a couple of innings that were pretty long, which got him out of there after the seventh. He really dialed it up in a couple of innings when they had the bases loaded. ... The perfectionist he is, he's probably going to be a little harder on himself than I am, but I love the way he found ways not to break."

Don't be shocked if it's Keuchel on the hill for the AL starting this year's All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Perhaps Keuchel's emergence isn't all that surprising because he showed signs last season that he could be something special. He pitched to a 2.93 ERA in exactly 200 innings and had 10 games in which he allowed three or fewer runs yet lost or took a no-decision.

The longest-tenured Astros pitcher on the staff, Keuchel set the tone for not only himself but the entire Astros team on Opening Day when he tossed seven scoreless innings to beat the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber, and a team in the Cleveland Indians that was a trendy a postseason pick as any in the league entering the season.

It's been nothing but rainbows and unicorns for the Astros since then as they have experienced a 10-game winning streak, are currently in the midst of a stretch that has seen them win seven of nine, and are 5 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels for the AL West lead.

It's amazing the Astros are in the position they are considering that only Altuve is hitting over .300. The better part of the lineup is below .250, with three players with more than 120 at-bats hitting below .200.

"They are what they are, depending on the number of at-bats you have," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I like that we're starting to get more hits and piece more innings together than we did at the beginning of the season. It is what it is.

"These guys aren't going to continue (to) hover where they're at. I think better times are ahead."

What the Astros do better than anyone, though, is hit the long ball, as they lead the majors with 62 home runs, but they also lead the AL with 385 strikeouts.

But thanks to Keuchel's sensational start, the Astros' team ERA of 3.50 is fifth-best in the AL.

Houston will become a huge story as the season goes on. It may not be the Pittsburgh Pirates returning to the postseason after 20 straight losing seasons, but the Astros getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 would be enormous.

Keep in mind, this is a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2008 and has averaged 104 losses over the last four years. And that number could have been a whole lot worse had they not won 70 games last season. Yes, they lost 92, but still, it was a 19-game improvement from 2013.

In other words, it's been real bad in Houston.

The one positive to come from all that losing is that it does result in some pretty decent draft picks. And even though last year's No. 1 pick, Brady Aiken, never signed, there is a ton of talent still in the pipeline ready to burst through.

It's just starting to come to fruition sooner than anyone expected.

We all knew the Astros were going to turn it around at some point. We just didn't figure it would be a seventh-round pick leading the charge.