Competition brewing for closing duties

Competition brewing for closing duties

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- One doesn't have the most explosive stuff, but he prides himself on using control, location and smarts to record crucial outs late in games. The other is the flame-throwing power arm with one of the most electric arsenals in the big leagues but an inability -- so far, at least -- to harness it into being a consistent closer.

Together, they can give the Astros a strong eighth- and ninth-inning combination, or perhaps even team up to share the role of closer.

But for now, Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon are simply neighbors.

One of the more intriguing storylines for the Astros in Spring Training is sure to be how the competition for the closing job plays out between Lyon and Lindstrom, two 30-year-old, right-handed-throwing offseason acquisitions whose lockers are currently situated right next to each other at Osceola County Stadium.

Since the start of camp, manager Brad Mills has stressed that it's an open competition between the two -- even though Lyon just signed a hefty contract -- and he's open to anything for the ninth inning.

General manager Ed Wade believes it's the different pitching styles of Lyon and Lindstrom that provides an interesting late-inning dynamic for a ballclub that's relied on one steady closer for the past 13 years -- from Billy Wagner (1997-03) to Brad Lidge (2004-07) to Jose Valverde (2008-09).

"I know there have been a lot of successful teams over the last dozen years or so who have used more than one closer to get to the finish line," Wade said. "And years before that, it certainly wasn't uncommon to have more than one guy. Sometimes it means not being automatic that this is Valverde time or this is Brad Lidge time or Billy Wagner time. Obviously, that worked in great success, but that doesn't mean that you can't do it a different way.

"I'm big on alternatives."

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Lindstrom boasts a fastball that could reach the triple digits and backs it up with more hard stuff -- a slider that has come and gone throughout his career and a splitter he said he'll try to incorporate this year. Lyon, on the other hand, throws his fastball in the low 90s and frequently follows it up with a slow-moving curveball.

But while their arsenals are totally different, they share a team-first mentality on the ninth-inning situation.

Lindstrom admitted Tuesday that he wants to be the closer, but he has no problem being the setup man to Lyon.

"Whether I'll be in the eighth inning or the ninth inning, it doesn't really matter," Lindstrom said. "I just want to go out there and get the job done. If it means passing the ball over to somebody else, I'm willing to do that."

Lyon, on the other hand, doesn't even see a competition.

"The competition for me is not even in effect," Lyon said. "I'm going out here, and I'm just trying to get ready for a season. That stuff will all play out by itself. I can't control any of that. All I can do is just go out there and work as hard as I can, be ready for a long season."

The experience factor goes to Lyon, who may only be a few months older than Lindstrom but has accumulated 34 more saves during his career.

Lyon, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Astros this offseason that came as a surprise to some, was a setup man to Fernando Rodney in Detroit in 2009. Lyon put up a 2.86 ERA last year, and was 26-for-31 in save chances in '08 and 14-for-15 in '05 while with the D-backs.

"I think I'm a competitor," said Lyon. "I go out there, and I don't really have the best stuff all the time, but when I go out there on the mound, if I don't have my best stuff, I compete. And I believe I can get outs, and I'm going to help my team win games. That's my mind-set going into anything I do. I feel like I'm going to win and come out on top."

Lyon threw from 90 feet on Monday, took a day off on Tuesday, and he said he should be back on the mound "pretty soon" while recovering from a cyst in his right shoulder.

Lindstrom, acquired from Florida for three prospects in December, went 15-for-17 in save chances in '09 and 5-for-6 in that situation in '08. After sporting a 3.11 ERA in 137 combined relief appearances in '07 and '08, he had a forgettable '09. That year, his third in the big leagues, he battled right rotator cuff and elbow injuries to eventually lose his job as closer to Leo Nunez and finish with a bloated ERA of 5.89.

"Last year was tough for me, because I felt like I was battling back all year," said Lindstrom, who sports a career 3.41 ERA in 68 save situations.

"But I'm looking forward to just staying healthy and going out there and just pounding the zone, using my best stuff, trying to get hitters out. I know that when I am healthy, it's also a sort of different mentality, and pitchers know what I'm talking about."

It's that kind of talk that makes Lindstrom one of the more intriguing arms in the game, which is what could make this closer situation a real head-scratcher for Mills in his first spring.

But that's exactly the way he wants it.

"I hope it's a real hard decision," Mills said. "I hope that is one of the hardest decisions I'm going to make all spring.

"Any time you have a good closer you have confidence in and the ballclub has confidence in, that helps shorten the game. That's the whole purpose of having a good closer is you want to shorten the game and hopefully win the games you're supposed to win. If we can get to that situation and pick one guy we feel is able to do that and he's able to kind of step up to the plate, so to speak, the better off they are."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.