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2013 RAY KNIGHT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robert Tyler mowed down the competition

Crisp County ace Robert Tyler, considered the best high school arm in Georgia, told MLB teams if they didn't plan to take him in the first three rounds, not to bother. And when the San Francisco Giants called and asked what his plans would be if they chose him in the fourth round, Tyler confirmed his pledge and said he was headed to Athens to play baseball for the next three years for the Georgia Bulldogs. (j.d.sumner@albanyherald.com)

Crisp County ace Robert Tyler, considered the best high school arm in Georgia, told MLB teams if they didn't plan to take him in the first three rounds, not to bother. And when the San Francisco Giants called and asked what his plans would be if they chose him in the fourth round, Tyler confirmed his pledge and said he was headed to Athens to play baseball for the next three years for the Georgia Bulldogs. (j.d.sumner@albanyherald.com)

CORDELE --- One of the first players new Georgia baseball coach Scott Stricklin called after accepting the job earlier this month was Crisp County senior pitcher Robert Tyler.

And Stricklin’s message was full of ambition and inspiration.

“He told me that if I came and played for him that we would be going to Omaha for the College World Series,” Tyler said. “And he said that in three years, I could be the No. 1 overall pick in the (MLB) Draft.”

After failing to be picked in the first three rounds of the recent MLB Draft, Tyler — who is considered the best high school pitcher in the state and is the recipient of The Albany Herald’s 2013 Ray Knight Baseball Player of the Year award — decided to take Stricklin up on his offer.

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While Cougars star Robert Tyler was one of Crisp County’s top hitters (.372, 39 RBI), it was his lively arm that made him a top college and MLB prospect. He ended his senior year with a 1.99 ERA, an 8-2 record with 72 strikeouts and pitched in front of handfuls of major league scouts nearly every time he took the mound.

Tyler was Georgia’s prized commitment, but many analysts listed him as one of the top pitching prospects in the nation, and all indications were that the dominating right-hander would end up on a major league roster next season.

Instead, he’s going to Athens.

And Tyler couldn’t be happier.

“I grew up a Georgia fan, and that’s always where I’ve wanted to go. It will feel just like playing for the (Crisp County) Cougars,” Tyler said. “I knew going into the draft that if I wasn’t taken in the first three rounds that I would honor my commitment to Georgia, and when the (San Francisco) Giants called me at the beginning of the fourth round and asked me what I was going to do (if they drafted me), I told them that I would be going to school.”

Tyler was eventually drafted — in the 28th round by the Baltimore Orioles — but that didn’t change the decision to take his talents to Athens, where his incredible career will continue.

It was a career that nearly led the Crisp County baseball team to its first state championship in any sport in 52 years.

The Cougars rode his arm and his 96-mph fastball to the Class AAAA Final Four for just the second time in school history. Crisp was swept by Marist in the semifinals, but it was a season that will be talked about for ages in Cordele.

When it’s all said and done, Tyler’s impact on the program and his potential future success might be talked about even longer.

“We had a good team, and it was as much Robert’s leadership as it was his pitching that led us to where we were,” Crisp County coach Bill Pate said. “I think Robert has the potential to be a major league pitcher. Like coach Stricklin said, they are glad he is going to Georgia, and if he does what they ask of him they think he can be a No. 1 pick in the draft in three years.”

While he was one of the team’s top hitters (.372, 39 RBI), it was his lively arm that made him a top prospect. He ended his senior year with a 1.99 ERA, an 8-2 record with 72 strikeouts and pitched in front of handfuls of MLB scouts nearly every time he took the mound.

Pate said Tyler never got rattled by the attention.

“Robert is a very laid-back young man and handled the attention well,” Pate said. “He has been watched and scouted since the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons. College coaches have been here, professional scouts have been here, and he has played in tryouts and showcases. He handled the pressure extremely well.”

While on the mound for the Cougars, he would simply try to ignore the flock of radar guns that sprung into position as he entered his wind-up.

“I just tried not to look in the stands,” said Tyler, whose fast ball has been clocked in the mid-to-upper 90s. “I would just tell my teammates to ignore them and look at them as other fans.”

It was hard to ignore Tyler’s fastball.

It’s what drove MLB scouts to not only keep him on their radars but to keep in contact with him on a weekly basis.

“My phone was blowing up all the time,” he said. “They would usually all text me on Sunday and ask me when I was throwing during the week. Then they would text me the night before to make sure I was still going the next day. And then they would text me in the morning to make sure again.”

Nobody wanted to miss a single pitch he threw.

Pate, who coached Tyler all four years in high school, saw his potential the moment he stepped on the diamond as a sophomore.

“As a freshman he was small and didn’t throw very hard, but between his ninth- and 10th-grade years he grew up and got taller and bigger,” Pate said. “He went from being a good little pitcher to being a great high school pitcher. It was during his sophomore year when we really saw his potential.”

In his final three years in Cordele, Tyler became the most talked-about pitcher in the state since Brookwood’s Lucas Sims — who was taken in the first round by the Atlanta Braves in 2012 — and he was able to add to his pitch arsenal as the seasons wore on. Prior to and during his senior year, Tyler perfected a slider that became one of his go-to pitches.

Both on the mound and at the plate, he led the Cougars to 20 straight wins heading into the state semifinals, where he was outdueled by Marist ace Sean Guenther in the opener of the best-of-three series and lost, 6-3.

It was the final time Tyler took the mound as a Cougar.

“This season meant the world to me,” Tyler said after the loss on May 20. “I had the best time of my life. It wasn’t supposed to end like this, but I wouldn’t change this season at all.”

Less than a month later he was sitting in his living room with his parents and brother watching the opening rounds of the MLB Draft.

His target was to get drafted in the third round, which would guarantee a signing bonus of at least $500,000. Anything higher (the signing bonus for the fourth round dipped to $350,000) and he was prepared to pack his bags for Athens.

“I knew there was a 50-50 chance that I would go in the third round,” Tyler said. “We were sitting there, and my (representative) was on the phone, and he said that the Giants might take me in the third round. But then he called me a few minutes later and told me that I wouldn’t get picked, so I knew before the third round ended what was going to happen. Whenever he told me that I just stopped watching the draft.”

In between the third and fourth rounds, Tyler’s phone rang again.

“The Giants called before the fourth round started and wanted to know what I would do if they drafted me, and I told them I would go to school,” he said. “The (Colorado) Rockies called me in the sixth round, and I said no again. By that time I had put it behind me.

“I guess I was a little bit (disappointed), but I kept telling myself that either way I was in a good situation. I just had to keep telling myself that. But in the pit of my stomach I was preparing myself for the worst.”

“The worst” didn’t turn out to be so bad a few days after the draft when he visited Athens for freshman orientation.

“The first thing we did was ride by the baseball field and stop and look around,” Tyler said. “Just looking at the field and seeing the renovations they did, and then on Monday morning when I was with all the students, it just got me fired up a little bit.”


2013 ALBANY HERALD ALL-AREA BASEBALL TEAM:

Player of the Year Runner-up

Ladonis Bryant, Sr., OF, Early County

Why he’s here: Stole an eye-popping 59 bases in 62 attempts and had a team-high .486 batting average. He also led the team with 41 runs and knocked in 31 RBI and smacked two homers.

FIRST TEAM

Josh Black, Sr., OF/P, Westover

Why he’s here: He did everything for Westover. Black was the best defensive outfielder in Region 1-AAAA and hit had a . 621 batting average to go along with 23 stolen bases. He also pitched and averaged and had an ERA under 1.00.

Stewart Tyler, So., P, Crisp County

Why he’s here: Player of the Year Robert Tyler’s younger brother, but he has made a name for himself on the mound, too. He was 8-1 with a 1.74 ERA and struck out 63 batters in just 45 innings in the regular season.

Kory Herrington, Sr., OF, Crisp County

Why he’s here: Led the Cougars in hitting with a .423 batting average and also hit three homers and drove in 31 runs on 30 hits during the regular season.

Andrew Stroud, Sr., OF, Lee County

Why he’s here: Led Lee County in hitting with a .407 batting average and hit seven home run and drove in 22 runs.

Kh’Ron McClain, Sr., OF, Deerfield

Why he’s here: Was the perfect leadoff man for DWS. McClain led the Knights in hitting with a .490 batting average and stole 22 bases in the regular season.

Harris Webb, Sr., SS, Deerfield

Why he’s here: The UGA signee is one of the best fielding shortstops in SW Georgia and handles the bat as well as anyone in GISA. Webb hit .425 and scored 15 runs during the regular season.

Davis Hines, Sr., OF, Deerfield

Why he’s here: A fellow UGA commit like Webb, Hines was the fixture in center field for the Knights, running down everything for the last three years. He batted .426 with a home run and drove in 17 runs in the regular season.

Weston King, Sr., P, Deerfield

Why he’s here: Led Knights to state title series with a 6-3 record and a 2.10 ERA and was the ace for a staff loaded with pitchers.

Tabor Raley, Fr., P, Baconton

Why he’s here: Went 8-0 with a 1.24 ERA during the regular season, striking out 77 batters in just 45 innings. He also hit .320.

Michael Cowart, Jr., P, Miller County

Why he’s here: Was the ace for the Pirates and had a 6-1 record with a 1.13 ERA during the regular season to help lead Miller into the playoffs.

Cole Van, So., P., Miller County

Why he’s here: Went 6-3 on the mound and batted .515 to lead the Pirates in hitting. His pitching performance against Class AAAA power Cairo was the highlight of his year as he struck out 17 batters.

Dillon Hughes, Sr., OF, Southland

Why he’s here: Hit a staggering .575 and finished with 23 RBI, 27 runs scored and four homers.

SECOND TEAM

Taylor Walls, Jr., SS Crisp County

Why he’s here: Hit .380 in regular season but hit .600 in state playoffs.

Chris Mosley, Sr., P, Lee County

Why he’s here: Pitched much better than his 3-3 record and had a 2.52 ERA, striking out 60 batters in 50 innings while allowing only 17 walks.

Jack Bell, Sr., C Lee County

Why he’s here: Was as solid as a rock behind the plate and ad a big year at the plate, hitting .358 with a homer and 14 RBI.

Austin Murphy, Sr., P, Deerfield

Why he’s here: Was the other half of DWS’ 1-2 punch on the mound for the last two years and had a 4-3 record with a 2.10 ERA for the regular season.

Brock Pinson, Sr., P, Baconton

Why he’s here: Went 6-1 with a 3.27 ERA and had 59 strikeouts in 40 innings during the regular season to help the Blazers have the best season in their history. He also batted .561 with 34 RBI

Zack Bell,Jr., C, Baconton

Why he’s here: Bell hit .507, belted three homers and drove in 40 runs to lead the Blazers.

Rush Brown, Sr., P,, Crisp Academy

Why he’s here: Was top pitcher all year with a 2.00 ERA and will continue his baseball career next season at Truett-McConnell College.

Hunter Chambers, Jr., OF, Crisp Academy

Why he’s here: Led the Wildcats with a .417 batting average and 32 RBI and hit one home run.

Reed Dillard, Fr., P, Southland

Why he’s here: Was the Raiders’ ace in the regular season (39 IP, 2.69 ERA, 26 strikeouts, 1.21 WHIP) but was even better in the playoffs with 1.00 ERA and eight strikeouts in 14 innings pitched.

Blake Voyles, Sr., DH, Bainbridge

Why he’s here: Led the Bearcats with a .395 batting average and a .510 on-base percentage. He also had 14 RBI and scored 11 runs.

Tate Lambert, Jr., OF, Bainbridge

Why he’s here: Hit .375 with a .415 on-base percentage and finished the year with 10 RBI and 16 runs.

Garrett Vann, Jr., OF, SGA

Why he’s here: Led the team with a .379 batting average and was second with 17 RBI. He also was 10-for-10 on stolen base attempts.

Alex Chambless, Sr., 2B, SGA

Why he’s here: Led SGA with 27 runs scored in 21 games and was 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts. He was the lead-off hitter and batted .329 overall and .375 with runners in scoring position.