Lyerly's quickness helps transitions
By Nancy Haggerty
His nickname is “Earn” after his idol. And like race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., Craige Lyerly is all about speed.
But a year ago, the former East Rowan and Catawba baseball player, known as much for his quiet, shy demeanor as his live bat and quick feet, found himself going backward fast in his first season of professional ball.
Sure, there was the game-winning walk-off hit, which he still cites as his most memorable moment in the pros.
But that was one of only three hits he had in 11 games as a Hudson Valley Renegade. His abysmal 0.91 average got him demoted from that short-season, class A team to Gulf Coast League Rookie ball in Florida.
The change of venue brought better, but hardly spectacular, results a .225 average in 32 games.
More was expected from someone who hit. .399, with eight home runs and 27 stolen bases as a Catawba senior before the Tampa Bay Rays made him their 19th-round draft choice last year.
And this year, he has delivered more a lot more.
After hitting .285 with 49 hits, 19 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 50 games for Hudson Valley, Lyerly was promoted last week to the full-season A Bowling Green (Kentucky) Hot Rods.
Lyerly has yet to play for Bowling Green and whether he’ll see any action this week in the Hot Rods’ best-out-of-three Midwest League playoff series against the Fort Wayne (Indiana) TinCaps is unclear.
But already Lyerly feels comfortable with his surroundings and happy to possibly call Bowling Green home next season, if he’s not moved up farther to the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the higher A Florida State League.
“I was definitely surprised I was moved up,” said Lyerly, who was informed after a Renegade road loss. “I was pretty excited… This is a good experience for next year.”
His numbers show how the pendulum can quickly swing in baseball.
But Jared Sandberg, his manager at Hudson Valley, who played in the Majors for Tampa, has seen Lyerly, a third-team All-American as a Catawba junior, grow off the field as well as on.
“He’s much improved from when he was here last year. He was very timid. He’s much more comfortable as a person and as a player. This year, his personality really came out,” Sandberg said.
Indeed, Catawba Coach Jim Gantt, who first started coaching Lyerly in American Legion ball when Lyerly was about 14, said before Lyerly’s team was determined last year, some worried he’d be overwhelmed if assigned so far from home. The Renegades play in 4,500-seat Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, New York, a predominately suburban/partially rural area about 75 miles north of Manhattan.
“He was a fish out of water,” Gantt said, describing his former player as a unique, non-drinking, non-partying, non-flamboyant, trustworthy country boy, who’s very much at home hunting and fishingby himself.
The coach recalled Lyerly’s reluctance after his freshman year at Catawba to play summer wooden bat-league, collegiate ball just 90 minutes away. He’d never been so far from his home area, Gantt said, noting Lyerly ultimately played and was glad he had.
“I think it’s just comfort-level with him,” said Gantt.
This summer, the 23-year-old and Brazilian teammate Leonardo Reginatto lived, as all New York-Penn League players do, with a host family. Theirs included two kids who’d sometimes get them into backyard games during the players’ downtime.
Still, Lyerly conceded it has been tough to play without his family and girlfriend in the stands, although they did travel to Hudson Valley once this summer.
But he blames last year’s on-field problems less on being homesick and more on fully adjusting from the aluminum bat used in college to the heavier, less forgiving (“You’ve got to hit it almost perfect to get a hit”) wooden bat, as well as facing better pitching and better defense.
“It was getting used to a different kind of baseball that’s being played… The skill level is different from college. Everything is faster. The pitching is better and… the hole is smaller on the field to get the ball in (because of fielders’ range),” he said.
“It was discouraging. I didn’t put up the numbers I wanted to,”
Lyerly said… “I felt I was over my head last year.”
As a result, after his Gulf Coast season ended, Lyerly, who studied accounting at Catawba, returned to Salisbury, where he did office work for the Whitley & Jordan law firm and worked out at his college and at Extreme Performance, a baseball/softball training facility owned by Gantt’s wife, Adriana, a Catawba softball coach.
“I really worked hard… It made me better,” said Lyerly, who described himself as “confident and knowing I could do it” entering this season.
In part, Lyerly credits Jim Gantt, not just for helping him during the off-season but for helping him get to pro ball, a dream since his Pirate T-ball days.
“He made me a really better player… He expected the best from players and brung out the best,” said Lyerly, who, despite All-State honors, went undrafted out of high school but, in accepting Catawba’s scholarship, declined several others, including from Appalachian State.
Gantt, who still recalls a sparkling 5-to-3 double play Lyerly turned as a young teen, said he has always enjoyed watching the righty hitter play.
That extends to “bear crawling” races with teammates in which the 5’11”, 175-pounder could not only out-scramble everyone but would vault walls if that route proved the fastest to the finish.
“He’s a little unorthodox,” Gantt said, explaining, in watching Lyerly, he has found himself saying, “I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that.”
Talent has never been a question.
“He could do things you can’t teach a person to do,” Gantt said.
Right now, Lyerly is still making the transition from third base, where he had played since American Legion, to the outfield, which the Rays drafted him to play.
He needs to improve his routes to balls but Sandberg said it’s clear Lyerly, who split his time with the Renegades between left and center, can play all three outfield positions.
While Lyerly had just three home runs for the Renegades, a “pretty impressive” opposite-field blast at upstate Auburn is significant to Sandberg, who believes he’ll show more power by using the entire field.
“He’s got some strength to him,” Sandberg assessed.
But, by far, Lyerly’s greatest asset is his speed. Gantt thinks Lyerly, who hit leadoff for the Renegades in August, is the third fastest player in the entire Rays’ system, an organization known for speed.
Despite missing time with a sprained ankle, Lyerly, who was given a permanent green light at Hudson Valley to run whenever he chose, was 10th in steals in the 14-team New York-Penn League when moved up.
“He’s got to continue to wreak havoc on the bases,” said Sandberg.
Lyerly has no other plans.
“I see myself as a base hitter who can turn a single into a double or (get to second) by stealing a leadoff-type-batter type of guy,” said Lyerly.
He also sees himself as changed from the guy who went to New York last year super serious and critical of himself.
“Everyone is real loose. You’ve got to be. You’ve got to learn how to let things go. If you have a bad night, you can’t let that drag into the next game,” he said.
This year, though, bad nights have been few.
“My highlight (with the Renegades) was the whole season. I put up good numbers. I just had a fun time the whole year there,” said Lyerly, who hopes to return to the law firm and to his workouts in Salisbury after his season concludes.
Gantt believes Lyerly will make the Majors, remarking, in fact, he might already be there if he didn’t spend so much time hunting and fishing.
Of the season he has had, he said, “I think what you’re seeing is actually what he can do.”