Marlon Byrd doesn't view himself as the Pirates' savior. He sees himself as a subset of the equation. The lineup is better with him in it, but not by leaps and bounds.
Saturday night, at least, he made all the difference. Byrd's seventh-inning homer gave the Pirates a 2-1 win against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park and vaulted them back into a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central Division with 14 games to play.
"I looked at it as, they need another piece of the puzzle," Byrd said of joining the Pirates in a trade from the New York Mets. "The team was still winning, just another presence in the lineup. I think the big thing was getting [Justin] Morneau, too. Just to add in, just to change that two-three-four into two-three-four-five-six. Those are pressure pitches for a pitching staff."
Byrd hit a 1-0 fastball from left-hander James Russell to right-center field for his 23rd home run of the season.
"Sitting on one pitch, trying to get a fastball, just trying to elevate," he said. "He left it over the plate just enough that I could get a good swing on it."
Byrd continued a trend in the past two games. Jose Tabata also homered Saturday, and the Pirates hit three home runs Friday night.
Another seven strong innings from Gerrit Cole kept the game close. He allowed one run on five hits, walking three and striking out seven. Tony Watson pitched a perfect eighth, and Mark Melancon earned his 15th save.
"The defense picked me up early and allowed me to keep going," said Cole, who improved to 8-7.
Cubs starter Scott Baker made his second start of the season after Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. Before his first start back, when he allowed two hits in five scoreless innings Sept. 8 against the Milwaukee Brewers, he had not pitched in the majors since Sept. 24, 2011.
Baker relied almost exclusively on his fastball. He threw only two off-speed pitches of the 26 pitches he threw in the first and second inning, then threw four to Jordy Mercer in the third. Of his 75 pitches, only 15 were off-speed. He allowed one run on three hits in six innings without a walk.
"He's tough to be patient because he pounds the zone with strikes," Byrd said. "I know he's coming off the surgery, he's not 100 percent, but he still knows how to pitch. He did a great job."
The Pirates had only two singles off Baker through the first five innings. In the sixth, Tabata roped his fifth homer of the year, a line drive to center field, to tie the score at 1-1. Tabata had not homered since Aug. 16.
In Cole's previous start, he held the Texas Rangers scoreless through seven innings, allowing three hits and striking out nine. Like they did Friday night against Charlie Morton, the Cubs threw their left-handers at Cole -- five of their eight position players batted left-handed.
Francisco Liriano takes the mound today as the Pirates try for a series victory, forcing the Cubs to abandon their left-handers for the final game.
Three Cubs reached base in the first, though a nice defensive play held them to only one run. Starlin Castro led off with a soft single to right. Luis Valbuena lined out to center, but Anthony Rizzo walked on four pitches.
Nate Schierholtz doubled to the wall in right-center field, scoring Castro. Byrd and Neil Walker relayed the ball home in time to keep Rizzo, who started at first base, from scoring.
"You can't execute that play any better," Cole said.
Entering the game, Cole had a 5.62 ERA in the first inning.
Cole fell into trouble in the seventh. He walked leadoff hitter Brian Bogusevic and allowed a single to Welington Castillo. Darwin Barney's sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third with one out.
Dioner Navarro, pinch-hitting for Baker, struck out. Cole's 101st and final pitch of the game became a ground ball to short from Castro, and he escaped the inning to preserve the 1-1 tie.
"Just went with what Russ [Martin] was throwing down," Cole said.
Byrd said he saw belief from Cole that he could compete at this level.
"You go against a team like Texas, and just shut them down, and that belief comes in," Byrd said.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 15, 2013 1:45 AM