HOUSTON Don't call what Brandon Lyon managed on Saturday night against the Rangers a comeback. He's been optimally healthy for weeks.
Lyon produced his ninth consecutive scoreless appearance at Minute Maid Park in the eighth inning, so in one sense what he delivered was par for the course. But the details of his latest outing provided a stark contrast to the progressive steps the Astros took with Lyon entering this season. If his scoreless string of seven appearances didn't capture the attention of Astros fans that lambasted Lyon throughout his struggles last season, the Houdini act of his eighth was impossible to ignore.
In what could be considered his most white-knuckle hold of this season, Lyon preserved a one-run lead by retiring three consecutive batters with Rangers on base representing the tying and go-ahead runs. That the Astros managed to hold on for a 6-5 victory against the best team in baseball was in no small part related to Lyon and his ice-watered veins.
"That's a veteran guy that's had playoff experience. He's been in big games like this," Astros catcher Chris Snyder said. "What you see out of Brandon is he's even-keeled no matter what the situation is. That's what makes him effective. And that was it right there for him: no panic, make your pitches, and you'll be all right.
"When you've been in situations like that, the easier it gets. You're not worried about who you're (facing), all you're worried about is making your pitch, picking up the (catcher's) glove, locating it and making the pitch. That's what he did."
Who Lyon faced with Michael Young and Brandon Snyder on base was no small detail. The Rangers (25-16) sent sluggers Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to the plate, a pair of postseason heroes from their run to a second consecutive American League pennant in 2011. While there are no soft spots in the Rangers' order, Cruz and Napoli are particular lethal, especially with runners aboard. Given what Lyon endured on the field and off last season, this spot seemed like the ultimate test of his health.
Before succumbing to season-ending shoulder surgery last June 30, an uncommon procedure that entailed Lyon having his detached right biceps reattached as well as a tear in his labrum repaired, Lyon was a focus of fan derision. The Astros were careening toward necessary rebuilding, and a scuffling reliever in the middle of a three-year, 15-million contract made for an obvious target of fans' boiling frustration.
Over his final five outings last season, Lyon surrendered 12 earned runs in three innings. His ERA ballooned more than seven runs to 11.47. It was easy to remain skeptical of Lyon even as he racked up scoreless appearances this season. The Astros were cautious with how they utilized him, almost handpicking moments of minimal leverage in April.
"We tried to bring him along to build up that arm strength, and definitely he's better," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He's been there for the last four or five outings. He's been nails, and he was nails again."
Lyon had logged a pair of two-inning stints: at Washington on April 16, and last Tuesday in Philadelphia. He pitched in back-to-back-to-back games May 6-8. He'd been the picture of consistency, but the Rangers, with their stacked lineup of prolific hitters, proved a significant hurdle.
Lyon induced Cruz to lift a weak fly ball to Brian Bogusevic in right for the first out. He almost escaped the inning when Napoli rolled into what initially appeared to be a 4-6-3 double play before second-base umpire Ted Barrett ruled that shortstop Jed Lowrie lost contact with the bag prior to recording the out. Instead of sitting in the dugout with the one-run lead intact, Lyon had to face pinch-hitter Craig Gentry with Young and Murphy in scoring position. He got Gentry to fly out to center field.
Threat averted and eyes opened. Given how effectively he's pitched over the past several weeks, Lyon didn't view this appearance as validating.
"I don't think it was a confirmation," Lyon (0-1, 1.76 ERA, 89.7 LOB) said. "I'm just going out there in any situation. Whenever the phone rings, they call my name to go out there to do the best I can.
"Obviously when you're in a situation when you feel like you helped the team win you feel pretty good about it. But it wasn't any confirmation to make me feel like I'm back. I feel like I've been back for a while and I'm just going to go out there and keep doing what I can do."
It didn't require rabbit ears to hear all the negativity spewed toward Lyon last season. And while Saturday night represented just another timely performance in a string of excellent ones for Lyon, it certainly confirmed Mills' trust in a right-hander whose career was on the brink.
"I'm thrilled to death for him personally to be able to come back from something like that," Mills said. "To have the rough time that you remember from last year, and he comes back from that, get's that arm strength, and to pitch like he has has been great."
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