Nov. 10, 2009
by Jon Cooper, Contributing Editor
OSR Sting EXTRA
ATLANTA — It’s November in Peoria, Arizona. Temperatures are in the 60s, and there’s no talk about how dry the heat is.
The only heat that anyone talks about here is the kind launched by the guys standing on a pitching mound.
Welcome to the Arizona Fall League.
The names here are not big, yet. The players in this six-team league — each Major League club sends six top prospects — obviously hope to add their names to the list of alumni that went on to star in the Major Leagues, a list that includes Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia — and Georgia Tech alumni such as Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Wieters.
But some participants have more modest goals. They are looking to re-tool their game to gain a foothold on a Major League roster come April.
Include former Georgia Tech left-handed pitcher Lee Hyde in that group.
Hyde, who had a superb three-year career on The Flats (2004-06), winning 75 percent of his decisions (18-6), before being drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and foregoing his senior year, is pitching with the Peoria Saguaros.
He has plans for the AFL, but none include trying to be the left-handed Tommy Hanson, the Braves ace-in-waiting, who last season became the first pitcher to win MVP of the AFL.
Instead, Hyde has been more profoundly affected by a different Tommy — Tommy John.
In August of 2007, the Fayetteville, Ga., native had the ligament replacement surgery named for the former Major League pitcher, and has been working his way back. Arizona is a big step in that direction.
“Mainly for me, going back into this year, my main goal was to get healthy,” said Hyde, who was a combined 5-2, with a 3.68 ERA and one save during the 2009 season, which he split between the Braves’ Gulf Coast League, Advanced-A (Myrtle Beach Pelicans) and Double-A (Mississippi Braves) affiliates.
“I’ve missed a lot the last two years. So for me to stay healthy and throw well this year and get the opportunity to come out here is great for me because there’s a lot of good competition down here.”
Going against good competition should work in Hyde’s favor.
“His biggest strength is he’s a great competitor. He hated to lose,” said Tech coach Danny Hall. “His last year here he literally pitched us to the College World Series. He’s had a few arm issues since he’s gotten into pro ball, but it looks like he’s overcome that and is on the fast track to get to Turner Field.”
In nine AFL appearances covering eight innings (through Nov. 6), Hyde allowed three runs, but all of them came in one outing, when he allowed two walks and a three-run homer. In his other eight, Hyde hasn’t allowed a run, given up only five hits, and walked two while striking out nine.
More importantly, he hasn’t suffered any physical setbacks, either in his elbow or shoulder. The latter flared up when he came back in July 2008, having over-compensated for his elbow.
“It took me a while to get there, but I would say I’m back at full strength now,” he said. “I’m throwing as hard as I ever had before. My arm is recovering like it did before my surgery. I’ll have days where it takes me a couple of days to get back for my arm to be able to pitch, but my arm is recovering really well.”
Braves officials are looking for consistency and an absence of pain from Hyde.
“We hoped Lee would continue to pitch as well as he did in AA this year in August and stay healthy,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren. “He has pitched very well in the fall league and we hope he will be in a position to help us in Atlanta next year.”
“Our main goal for Lee in the AFL was to log quality innings against a good level of competition,” added Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp. “He has found a nice niche coming out of the bullpen for one or two innings, which is the role he is currently in this Fall.
“With continued development of his pitches, and the command to go along with those pitches, we feel that Lee can continue to climb up through our system and hopefully be in a position to help our Major League team.”
Mentally, Hyde points to his final season at Tech for his ability to adapt from starter to reliever, a role that Hall put him in that season.
“It made me a better pitcher overall because throughout my career as a starter, I’d have that one tough inning, I’d lose my feel for the strike zone,” he said. “When I moved to the pen my junior year, I got back to the mentality of just pounding the strike zone and I took that mentality back to the starting rotation at the end of that year.”
As the AFL winds down — the Saguaros’ final game will be Nov. 19 — Hyde, who turns 25 in February, has one eye on spring training, but also one on Atlanta, specifically Georgia Tech.
He’s still in touch with Hall and hopes his former coach can help him one more time.
“I actually talked with him trying to get tickets to the Georgia Tech-UGA football game when I get back to town,” Hyde said with a laugh. “He said, ‘He’s working on it.’ “