JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- It may have been the first game of spring, and the biggest names for the Cardinals may have been in the clubhouse by the sixth inning, but every day in March has importance to someone.
Thursday, it was Tyler Lyons who was in the spotlight. The Cardinals entered their spring opener against Miami planning to give the lefty two innings of work as the starter, capping his pitch total at around 40.
Lyons, who is out of options this year, is fighting for a spot in the Cardinals’ bullpen. He’s had a handful of great performances over his time in St. Louis, but hasn’t yet put together a consistent body of work.
That’s why, when he was efficient enough to stretch that 40-pitch leash into three innings of work, it added some weight to a game that many who haven’t yet tuned their frequency to baseball may have overlooked.
“He really was attacking the strike zone. That’s what you want. He was trying to use all his pitches,” said Brayan Pena, who started the game behind the plate.
Lyons sprinkled in everything in his spice cabinet against the Marlins, throwing the fastball, curve, slider and changeup over the course of his 12 batters and 41 pitches. He was punished only once, when Marcell Ozuna sent a low change soaring over the wall in left. It was a pitch Pena said was well-executed, and Lyons didn’t even mention it after the game.
“First time out, it's just about getting back in that groove,” the lefty said. “(Pena) kind of had an idea of how I like to throw and how I like to use my stuff, so we'll keep working on that. But I think we're off to a pretty good start, because I think he had a good feel for it.”
“It was one of the things where I wanted to get to know him,” Pena said. “What I saw today from him was he could throw anything for strike. In the third inning we were in a little bit of a tough situation, and he did a good job. I didn’t see him getting rushed or nothing like that. I saw him calming down and taking over in that situation. That’s what you want for a guy who is going to be in those tough spots.”
Given the relief corps’ usage in the previous couple seasons, if Lyons makes the bullpen he can expect plenty of high-leverage work. Luckily, he’s building off one of the best performances of his career last season, in perhaps the toughest start all year for a Cardinals pitcher.
On September 30, with the NL Central in the balance, Lyons took the mound in the back half of a double header and dismantled the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup. He threw seven scoreless innings, struck out five and allowed no hits. The Cardinals offense ran away with the game, and Lyons had shown his franchise what “putting it all together” looks like.
“Everything was set up for him to go out and show what he could do and he showed it,” Mike Matheny said. “It was a good reminder for him and for us, to go in this offseason saying ‘don’t forget.’ That was one of the best starts we saw all year long.”
Matheny added it was also internal confirmation for the then-27-year-old of his skills, reminding him of the pitcher he can be.
“Any time you have success like that on a big stage, it’s something that tells you you know you can do it,” Lyons added. “I think that was a good one for me, to go into the offseason and have that one to remember.”
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He was quick to point out the memory of that success is just that, and his future depends on what he does next.
With relief work likely on the horizon, one of the key areas for improvement for Lyons is his speed to the plate. For base stealers, if the time between a pitcher’s first movement and the ball’s arrival at the plate is 1.3 seconds or slower, they like pounce. Lyons, with a deliberate delivery, was previously attractive prey for speedsters. Thursday, he showed marked improvement.
“I thought he had a great tempo,” Matheny said. “He was down in the 1.1. When you’re a 1.1 to a 1.16, you’re going to shut down a running game.”
It may have only been three innings, but Lyons took the first of several steps toward securing a spot in St. Louis come April.
He also caught the eye of his newest teammate, who (in his characteristically bubbly style) conveyed the excitement Lyons’ temperament rarely allows him to display.
“I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed seeing what he was bringing and I’m very happy and very excited for him,” Pena said. “I know he’s been working really hard to get to this point, and hopefully he continues to get better and better.”