Game 25: Lyles, Figueroa emerge in rotation battle

The Astros aren’t saying it just yet, but you can certainly read between lines. The race for the fifth starter’s spot appears to be down to veteran Nelson Figueroa and top prospect Jordan Lyles, both of whom pitched well in their outings Sunday.

Lyles pitched in relief and held the Pirates to two hits and one run and struck out four batters in 3 2/3 innings, drawing some terrific praise from manager Brad Mills and catcher Humberto Quintero, who said ‘Wow’ when asked about his first time catching the 20-year-old.

“I’m excited when I see a young pitcher like this throw that kind of stuff. I’m surprised and excited because I’ve never seen a 20-year-old throw fastballs and breaking balls like that,” Quintero said.

Figueroa started the other split-squad game against the Braves in Lake Buena Vista and gave up six hits and one earned run in five innings, lowering his ERA to 3.86. General manager Ed Wade admitted Figueroa might have come to camp with a leg up, and now it seems he’s pretty much a lock to make the team in some role.

“I think if you take out that inning and a half over there against the Phillies [on Monday], I think I put myself at the top of the list, hopefully, for the No. 5 starter job,” he said. “I definitely showed all the different things I could do — a continuation of last year — getting out there and pitching, keeping the team in the ballgame. They’ve been all close games for us. The bottom line is I think I can help this team out in that role all year long.”

What is known is that Ryan Rowland-Smith is out of the running for the rotation spot. The team told him upon his arrival at the ballpark Sunday he was now competing for a bullpen spot, and manager Brad Mills said following the game he was now being considered for a bullpen spot. A year after beginning the season as the third man in the rotation in Seattle behind Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, Rowland-Smith couldn’t crack the Astros’ rotation.

“I want to have a good last week and embrace whatever role they give me and contribute,” Rowland-Smith said. “I’ve probably spent 50 percent of my career in the bullpen, and I’ve had a lot of success in the bullpen before I got a chance to start.”

If you look at the lack of innings Rule 5 picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton have been getting, it’s apparent they’re not being considered for the fifth spot. The team would have to offer them back to their former teams — the Yankees for Pendleton and Rays for Rodriguez — if they don’t make the 25-man roster, or they could work out a trade and keep them in the system.

“The two Rule 5 guys have done a nice job,” Wade said. “In their circumstances, even if we come to a determination that somebody else has stepped into the fifth spot, we’ll probably hold onto them as long as we can. Even if they don’t make the club, we’d love to keep them in the organization, but those are conversations we would have to have with the Yankees and the Rays.”


The Astros had their last of six split-squad dates of the season Sunday, and lost both — 3-1 to the Pirates in Kissimmee, and 5-3 to the Braves in Lake Buena Vista. I stayed in Kissimmee to watch Jordan Lyles, and I’m glad I did. Here’s a breakdown from that game:

What went right: Jordan Lyles threw 3 2/3 innings in relief and was dominant, holding the Pirates to two hits and one run and striking out four batters in 3 2/3 innings. Fernando Abad had a much needed good outing, throwing a scoreless inning, and Sergio Escalona and Enerio Del Rosario put up zeroes.

Del Rosario, acquired in a trade from the Reds last September, hasn’t allowed an earned run in eight outings, covering 10 innings of work. Mills said he’s in the thick of the race for a bullpen spot.

“He’s thrown the ball extremely well and continues to get outs and throw strikes,” he said.

At the plate, Humberto Quintero went 2-for-2 to raise his spring average to .440, and Jordan Lyles, Hunter Pence (1-for-3) and Matt Downs (1-for-3) had the other hits.

What went wrong: The Astros were stifled offensively by Pirates starter Charlie Morton, who threw six scoreless innings and struck out five batters. Michael Bourn (0-for-3), Anderson Hernandez (0-for-4), Carlos Lee (0-for-3), Brian Bogusevic (0-for-4) and Oswaldo Navarro (0-for-3) had tough days at the plate.

Lyles was charged with his first error of the spring when he dropped an easy tapper to the mound in the fourth inning.

What they said: “I’m just getting ready for the season. I’m still trying to get my arm in shape. I’m going out there and hopefully I can build on the season I had last year. I felt pretty good right now, like I did going into last season. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and see where it goes.” — Astros pitcher Jordan Lyles.

What’s next: Brett Myers, who will start for the Astros on Opening Day, will make his second-to-last Grapefruit League start when he faces the Detroit Tigers on Monday at Osceola County Stadium. Myers threw a spring-high five innings in his previous outing, and could approach 100 pitches against the Tigers before being backed down for his final spring start March 26. Among the others scheduled to pitch are Wilton Lopez, Mark Melancon and Jeff Fulchino.

Injury update: Wandy Rodriguez threw without issue in the bullpen Sunday and is good to go for Tuesday’s game after missing a start with mild shoulder tendinitis. … Infielder Angel Sanchez has dealing with a sore back and will be out until at least Wednesday.

Here are the photos:

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Above: Alberto Arias draws chuckles from teammates when he dives and slides across the grass to field a ball during drills on Sunday morning.

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Above: Brian Bogusevic flips to Patrick Urckfitz covering 1B during morning drills.

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Above: Wandy Rodriguez, who had missed a start with mild shoulder tendinitis, throws a light bullpen session on Sunday morning. He’s scheduled to pitch Tuesday.

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Above: Brian Bogusevic makes a throw to second base during morning drills.

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Above: See if you can find the ball. Dave Clark hits some balls to the outfielders.

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