Lyles sets up pitching tandem for success

Right-hander logs 8 K's over 5 2/3 innings, Benjamin strong in relief vs. KC

April 4th, 2021

Rangers manager Chris Woodward said right-hander came into Spring Training, almost an entirely different pitcher, from his pitches and ball movement to fully reshaping his body.

In 2020, Lyles was part of a struggling Texas staff that had a combined 5.02 ERA (23rd in the Major Leagues). Lyles largely struggled across the board, going 1-6 with a 7.02 ERA. On Sunday against the Royals, he got another chance to start, this time as part of the tandem pitching roles with lefty following in relief.

The Rangers saw this renewed version of Lyles in a 7-3 victory, as they avoided an opening-series sweep at Kauffman Stadium. Lyles logged eight strikeouts and no walks over 5 2/3 innings, and the only blemish in the outing was a two-run homer by Salvador Perez in the sixth.

Lyles was by far the club’s best pitcher in the series, allowing just two runs on five hits. He leaned on both his slider and curveball throughout the game and maximized his outing.

“It felt really good, but me personally, I'm excited with where my stuff is right now,” Lyles said. “We did a good job of executing today. No walks, two three-ball counts. We didn't create any damage on our end. I honestly believe and I know I'm in a good spot repertoire wise.”

Lyles worked with Rangers pitching coaches Doug Mathis and Brendan Sagara in the offseason and spring to work on his mix and shapes of his pitches. More specifically, he’s tightened up his curveball and added a slider to his arsenal.

“You can see there's like there was a confidence when he took the mound and when he was throwing the baseball [this year],” Woodward said. “You can tell there was a lot of conviction in what he was doing. So I think the total package is just a much better picture right now than it was last year, and he knows that it feels that.”

Benjamin, the other half of the tandem, went 2 2/3 innings and retired seven of the eight batters he faced with three strikeouts.

Lyles didn’t have a strict pitch count or innings limit, but Woodward wanted to keep him around 75-80 pitches. The right-hander worked efficiently through the lineup, finishing with 76 total pitches. With the Rangers’ struggles on the mound in this series, Woodward emphasized to both Lyles and Benjamin to attack the strike zone from the very first pitch.

Texas pitchers -- Lyles, Benjamin and closer Ian Kennedy -- threw 130 pitches with 92 strikes in the finale. The Rangers walked 12 batters in the first two games and none on Sunday.

Lyles has admitted he wasn’t totally pleased with the move to a tandem role instead of a traditional starter, but Woodward emphasized that he has a chance to earn that back, and he wants Lyles to pitch well enough to earn it back. Sunday’s outing was a step in the right direction.

Even so, the point of the tandem roles was to find a way to maximize all of the Rangers’ pitching while still taking care of many of the young arms on the staff. Lyles is by far the oldest tandem starter, but the other three -- Benjamin, Taylor Hearn and No. 3 prospect Dane Dunning -- are all between 26 and 27 years old.

“We want to maximize these guys and get their feet wet,” Woodward said. “We want to put them in really good spots to succeed and not overuse them, because we’ve got to be responsible here. We can't abuse these guys, especially our youth. We have to take care of these guys from a health standpoint.

“Outside of Jordan, most of them are just young guys that we want to take care of. Limiting the number of pitches, limiting the number of endings, not only maximizes their game potential, but just their overall season. We can monitor the number endings as they grow.”

Heim starts strong

Jonah Heim, ranked as the Rangers’ No. 28 prospect by MLB Pipeline, made his first start behind the plate on Sunday, going 1-for-3 with a double and a walk. Heim, a switch-hitter, came to Texas in an offseason trade with the A’s that included Khris Davis, with Elvis Andrus going to Oakland.

Heim made his Major League debut for the A’s last season, batting .211 in 13 games. He is a highly regarded defensive catcher. Woodward said Heim hits better from the left side and seems more comfortable there.

Since starting catcher Jose Trevino typically hits better against lefties, most of Heim’s starts this season will come against right-handed pitchers.

“I think his improvement over the course of Spring Training was probably one of the most on our team,” Woodward said about Heim. “He improved a ton just with his swing mechanics, his overall mentality, his approach, and his ability to control a barrel. He’s always been a contact guy, but I think with some of the adjustments he made, he's hitting the ball a lot harder.”