Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 5/20/12
HOUSTON Admit it: All of your doubts concerning Jordan Lyles' faltering promise started clanging about in the back of your mind as the Rangers battered him in the first inning on Sunday at Minute Maid Park. The chasm between his big-league debut on May 31, 2011 and his laborious third start of this season never felt wider. Lyles once represented the very best the Astros' farm system had to offer as far as arms were concerned, with his uneven performances as a 20-year-old last season inflicting minimal damage to that established perception. But then the Astros acquired right-hander Jarred Cosart from the Phillies last summer, and he instantly became the prospect to watch. And then Lyles lost the spring training competition with Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell for two available spots in the rotation, which surely sparked some doubts as to exactly how quickly his star would ascend. For those prone to doom-and-gloom scenarios, the Rangers fueled their fears. Before his first frame was done, Lyles had surrendered five runs as the Astros stumbled to a 6-1 loss in Round 1 of the Lone Star Series. Lyles offered no excuses for his bludgeoning, even after Astros manager Brad Mills covered Lyles' backside by detailing Lyles' inability to get a feel for the ball in the first inning. Lyles (0-1, 5.29 ERA) settled down a bit in lasting five innings, but the early damage done was irreversible. "This game was on my shoulders," said Lyles, who will be optioned back to Triple-A Oklahoma City, "and I didn't do a good job." Why Lyles struggled so mightily is up for debate. He managed just fine against the Reds on April 29 (three earned runs on four hits and three walks with five strikeouts over six innings) and the Phillies last Tuesday (one earned run on six hits and one walk with four strikeouts over six innings). But Cincinnati and Philadelphia fielded poor or middling offenses, ranking 24th (Reds: .300) and 13th (Phillies: .315) in weighted on-base average. The Rangers (26-16) qualified as superior. Texas entered the series finale pacing the majors in wOBA (.355) and sent 10 batters to the plate in the first. Lyles' frame collapsed when he failed to retire right fielder Nelson Cruz with the bases full and two outs, allowing a two-run single to left after getting ahead 0-2 in the count. After plunking catcher Yorvit Torrealba with a pitch, Lyles surrendered another two-run single, this one to his mound counterpart Colby Lewis, who carried a shutout into the ninth inning. If it was unclear just how little control Lyles possessed, it became evident via Lewis' base hit. Lyles complained to Mills about his struggles commanding his pitches both in his pregame session warming up in the bullpen and in the first. His issues in the bullpen weren't unusual, but they were ominous. "Usually the bullpens before the game aren't that great, so I brush it off," Lyles said after allowing six runs on nine hits and three walks with six strikeouts over fine innings. "The first inning I didn't have a clue where (the ball) was going for the most part. My mistakes were over the plate; there's no one to blame but myself. I didn't do a good job of minimizing my mistakes and sticking to giving up that one run instead of five. "It's tough. It's a bad feeling to have when you don't have your stuff out there with a lineup like this. My mentality after that first inning was to eat as many innings as I could for our bullpen so we'd be all right for tomorrow and the next couple of games." With Weiland (shoulder) sidelined and the Astros (18-23) facing a scheduled off day on Thursday, the need for a fifth starter won't come about until May 28 with a scheduled doubleheader against the Rockies in Denver. If Lyles' problems against the Rangers were isolated, the success he's enjoyed with the RedHawks (5-0, 3.49 ERA in six starts) might be more of an indication of what could be expected should Lyles earn another opportunity to pitch for the Astros in the coming weeks. "We hope it doesn't (signify something foreboding)," Mills said. "His next side (session) and so forth will work those things out. We'll get him out and work on his feel and definitely work on making sure he has that feel before he leaves the bullpen to come into the ballgame. Obviously there are times when pitchers have a tough time having that feel." It's not like the Astros are on the clock with Lyles. He won't turn 22 until October, and the franchise is in the midst of a protracted rebuilding process. Lyles will be an integral part of the club's future, either immediate or distant. One poor start won't undermine that reality. It's the totality of last season, when Lyles finished 2-8 with a 5.36 ERA, spring training and Sunday that leaves a smidgen of doubt as to exactly where Lyles will fit in future rotations. Will he stand front and center as a potential ace, or will Lyles remain stationed in the back? As the Astros advance, those questions are worth pondering. "Based on what he has done, especially in his previous starts for us, how well he has done in those previous starts shows the progress he has made," Mills said. "That leads me to believe that, yes, maybe he just couldn't get a feel for it. That was all." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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