It was absurd to expect a 20-year-old to inject hope into the Houston Astros' hot mess of a season. Absurd, unfair and unrealistic.
But that's just what Jordan Lyles did in Chicago Tuesday night.
The No. 1 prospect in the Astros organization — the only prospect that some ratings say is worth a damn for Houston — threw seven innings of five-hit baseball at storied Wrigley Field. Lyles threw 62 of his 92 pitches for strikes in his Major League debut. He never looked overmatched, really nervous or close to 20 (at least not when he was throwing pitches to the plate).
"He lived up to every expectation of every Astros fan," Houston manager Brad Mills said in his postgame TV interview.
Suddenly, there is hope around the Astros, the hope of at least getting excited about something for the future. There is nothing in baseball quite like the anticipation that a top pitching prospect builds. Now, thanks to Lyles' night in Chicago, Houston has that.
You almost sensed that the Astros' hitters felt it as well. For after Lyles finally blinked in the field, overthrowing third base in the eighth inning when his catcher was screaming at him to throw to first, after the rookie was lifted from the game and Houston's bullpen went about doing its usual pathetic work, after it looked like the kid would be a hard-luck loser ... the offense erupted for six runs in the top of the ninth. The Astros would win 7-3 after all.
The W does not go next to Lyles' name. But it was his night, his moment, his hope. And everyone knows it.
The youngest Astro to make his MLB debut since 1970 largely did it all by relying on a fastball that hovered in the low 90s and not much else. If you call pinpoint control not much else. For Lyles showed his greatest skill against the free-swinging Cubs, the ability to put a baseball right where he wants it. He even did it with a few curveballs when he needed outs most.
"He's throwing everything for strikes," Mills said. "Keeping them off balance."
Just ask Cubs starter Carolos Zambrano. Chicago's pitcher — one of the better-hitting pitchers in the game — became so frustrated when Houston's kid struck him out with two outs and a man on third in the fifth inning that he snapped his bat over his knee (see video below). It provided something of a comic moment, but Lyles just walked off the mound and back into the dugout.
Casual as could be. Like he belonged.
Lyles is not likely to ever be a high-volume strikeout pitcher. He had four Ks in his seven-innings-plus on Tuesday night, including two of Zambrano. His more important stat line? The zero walks next to his name. In his Major League debut. At age 20.
The kid arguably pitched more efficiently, more effortlessly than his veteran Cubs counterpart, a three-time All-Star. Zambrano needed 112 pitches to get through his eight innings of one-run ball, throwing only 75 of those for strikes. If Lyles puts together a successful MLB career — still a very big IF at this early point — he'll likely do it with more Greg Maddux-like outings.
Lyles can't be a showman. His stuff dictates that he be a craftsman.
On this night, his first night, with much of his family in from South Carolina, taking in the famous ivy, he was.
"That first inning when I went out there and got the ball from the third baseman, I just stood on the mound, took it all in," Lyles said in a postgame interview. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity. I couldn't ask for anything better."
MLB quickly put Lyles' interview up on its national press site, making it available to reporters around the country. Hey, the league's not dumb. How many chances are there going to be to give the Astros some promotion this season?
Lyles' promotion to the big leagues — reported on by CultureMap on Saturday — was the second biggest news of the Astros' season so far, behind only the monumental, beyond-just-sports, franchise-changing sale to the Jim Crane group. Now, Lyles' performance in Chicago is the second biggest news.
The Astros have the youngest active major leaguer — 20 years and 224 days old — in the game. Another start like this and Jordan Lyles will be more than Houston's best story. He'll be a national one.
Houston is predictably on pace to lose more than 100 games this season. There is not a single player on the roster deserving of a spot in the All-Star Game (sorry Hunter Pence, it's true). Yet, suddenly, there is a story worth following.
It's all about the rookie now. This is what hope looks like, one strike at a time.
Watch Lyles make Zambrano snap: