WHEN YOU SPEND your entire professional career in the baseball equivalent of hell, an assignment to purgatory is very much welcome news.
Such is the case of Jordan Lyles, the talented right-handed pitcher from Hartsville who was traded in December from the basement-dwelling Houston Astros to the Colorado Rockies, where few pitchers have enjoyed success in Denver’s high-altitude, thin air.
“I’m a majority groundball pitcher, which helps in that park,” Lyles said recently during a break from training at Athlete’s Arena in Irmo. “I’m definitely not worried or scared to go attack hitters there.”
Lyles’ fast-forward attitude helped shoot him through Houston’s minor-league system, arriving in the big leagues in late May 2011 at age 20. He allowed one earned run in seven innings at Wrigley Field that afternoon for the Astros.
Three seasons later, Lyles reported to spring training a week ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., attempting to land a spot in Colorado’s starting rotation.
The Rockies thought enough of Lyles to pick him up in a trade that sent all-star center fielder Dexter Fowler to Houston. Now it is up to Lyles to prove he belongs in what is a pivotal contract year. He will be arbitration-eligible following this season, meaning a strong showing will send his annual salary into the millions of dollars.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone around Hartsville surprised to see Lyles succeeding at any athletic endeavor. He was a standout in football, basketball and baseball and is considered one of the great athletes to come out of the Pee Dee area, right there with Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson, who played on the 2004 United States gold-medal women’s basketball team and Albert Haynesworth, a defensive lineman who played in the NFL.
Lyles is the most successful baseball player from Hartsville since Bobo Newsom, whose 20-season major-league career stretched from 1929 to 1953 in which he won 211 games for nine teams and was a three-time all-star.
Lyles is the middle of five boys to Judy and Jennings Lyles. The parents named their first two boys Justin and Josh, and “it just kind of caught on,” to keep naming every child with the first letter of “J,” according to mom. After Jordan came Jody and Jake. Their dog’s name is Jack.
Mom said Jordan’s competitive fire was noticeable at an early age, when he began to best his older brothers at sports. As they grew older, and mom’s weekly grocery bill swelled to $450 a week, the basketball games in the family’s driveway – the one with two goals off Highway 151 Bypass west of Hartsville – became fierce.
Jordan was known to destroy the goals with vicious dunks. But it was his 90-mph fastball he displayed at Hartsville High that caught the eye of college and professional scouts.
Lyles was ticketed to South Carolina when Houston surprised his family by making him the 38th pick in the draft’s supplemental first round. Houston was one of the few teams that did not scout Lyles at Hartsville High home games, but a scout showed up at their home on draft day.
A first-round signing bonus of $930,000 was enough to steer Lyles into professional baseball, and he cultivated his 91- to 94-mph fastball, a cutter, curveball and changeup during a meteoric climb through the Houston farm system. In some respects, it was a blessing for Lyles to be pitching in a system bereft of talent.
A typical journey for a pitcher out of high school is a step-by-step process that can take anywhere from five to seven seasons. Lyles needed parts of three to reach Houston.
“I was 20. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a good work ethic,” Lyles said. “It worked out for me. The Astros were in a rebuilding curve, and I was part of that process. They pushed me, and I made it up pretty quickly.”
Unfortunately, Lyles has had to learn his craft while pitching for a bad baseball team. The Astros have lost 106, 107 and 111 games in his three seasons pitching for Houston, resulting in records for him of 2-8, 5-12 and 7-9 with a combined earned run average of 5.35.
“I’m still learning,” Lyles said. “We’ve had some bad teams I’ve been a part of. I haven’t done my part for all those three years I was with the Astros, either. So, it’s a process that I can continue to learn from and get better. The talent is there, I’ve just got to put everything together and turn that corner.”
At least now he can see there is a corner to be turned, even if it occurs in pitcher’s purgatory.