Friday, August 21, 2009

Lyon Unsung Hero Of Tigers' First-Place Run

Brandon Lyon was supposed to anchor the Tigers' bullpen. Only, he was supposed to do it in the ninth inning.

The ninth inning isn't his---the plan went awry---but he made a two-for-one trade: surrendering the ninth for the seventh and eighth.

But he has, indeed, been an anchor nonetheless.

Lyon, signed in the off-season after four years in Arizona, was brought in to be the Tigers' closer. It seemed plain to the experts and blabbering bloggers (like me) that the plan called for Lyon to supplant Fernando Rodney, the helter-skelter reliever who became the top fireman following Todd Jones' retirement.

Rodney was wild. Rodney was inconsistent. Rodney was a thrill ride in the ninth inning.

Lyon was more experienced. Lyon was coming off a solid year. Lyon was excited to go to, in his mind, a contender. He was ready to grab the closer's role and give it a choke hold.

That worked for about two weeks of spring training.

Funny things happen in pro sports when the talking and writing gives way to the actual playing of the games.

Neither Lyon nor Rodney performed in spring training as advertised.

The roles were reversed; Lyon was erratic and unreliable, and Rodney was the calming influence in save situations.

Go figure.

After the Tigers ventured north to start the season, not much changed. Lyon had lost the closer's job in Florida, but was still deemed to be an important part of the bullpen, especially with Joel Zumaya's health in question and a rookie (Ryan Perry) on board.

Yet Lyon started the regular season much as he finished the Grapefruit version: fooling no one, and getting hit hard.

He didn't endear himself to his new fans in Detroit. They turned on him quickly.

"Todd Jones Lite" was one way of describing him: a guy who didn't strike out anyone (like Jonesy) but who didn't get anyone out, either (unlike Jonesy, for the most part).

Meanwhile, Rodney grew more and more comfortable as the team closer, allaying fears fans and observers had about him.

Lyon's entrance into games was met with disdain, worry, and eye-rolling---sometimes all at once.

That seems ages ago.

It says here that Brandon Lyon is one of the Tigers' Unsung Heroes.

Lyon's job is much like that of an umpire's or referee's. If all goes well, you hear nothing. But make a couple of mistakes, and...

Lyon has commandeered the eighth and ninth innings for the Tigers, even more so since they lost Zumaya yet again to injury.

The stat called a "hold", if it was a woman, would register on the sexy scale just above Margaret Thatcher. But it's the only one that can be truly attached to the guy who comes in, often during pivotal situations, and is charged with wriggling out of jams. The outs he gets usually are no less tough and important than the ones the closer waltzes in and gets in the ninth inning.

Lyon has been terrific for about three months. He gave the Tigers four remarkable innings in Minnesota in an extra inning game, as an example. But most of his stints have come and gone with little fanfare.

Rodney, for his part, has proven that the closer's role he earned in spring training is his and his alone. Lyon's work as a set-up man hasn't been wasted by any shenanigans in the ninth inning.

Others in the pen have chipped in, who were question marks for various reasons.

Southpaw Bobby Seay, who had a devil of a time with lefty sticks in 2008, is back to his old self.

Perry has had a decent rookie year, interrupted by some brief time in Toledo.

Fu-Te Ni has brought another trusty left-handed arm to the party.

And Lyon, who overcame an understatedly rocky start to seize control in the seventh and eighth innings.

He's still that "pitch to contact" guy---baseball code for lack of a consistent strikeout pitch---but the difference is that those moments of contact aren't as square or as catastrophic as they were from February to May.

Lyon has settled down and is pitching again---using good location, change of speeds, and good old-fashioned experience to get hitters out. He's re-learning the American League, where he hasn't pitched since 2003, with the Red Sox.

It's not as glorifying as what Fernando Rodney does, but without it, the Tigers would be in a heap.


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