Ron Cook: Byrd simply excellent again for Pirates


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CINCINNATI

The first thing Pirates general manager Neal Huntington should do when they name him Major League Executive of the Year is call Marlon Byrd and thank him. I don't want to say Byrd has made Huntington look like a genius. That would be a reach. Albert Einstein is a genius. A baseball man isn't. But Byrd sure has made Huntington look awfully smart.

"It seems like he comes up with clutch hit after clutch hit," Huntington was saying late Friday night in a dim runway in Great American Ball Park.

This was moments after Byrd was the offensive star in the Pirates' 4-1 win against the Cincinnati Reds. They came here knowing they had to win two of three games to get the wild-card game against the Reds Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. A.J. Burnett, who pitched eight terrific innings, and Byrd made sure the Pirates got the first one out of the way.

Byrd's two-run single to left field in the third inning gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead. He hit a ball off the top of the wall in left-center for a double in the sixth. He had a broken-bat single to right in the eighth.

It was just the sort of big game Huntington was looking for when he traded for Byrd Aug. 27.

"He's been great," Huntington said. "We expected a guy who would come in and play hard and lengthen our lineup. He's done that and more. He's shown up every day and led by example."

Byrd's first hit Friday night certainly qualifies as clutch. After Reds starter Homer Bailey loaded the bases by hitting Starling Marte and walking Andrew McCutchen and Justin Morneau, Byrd jumped on the first pitch he saw and ripped it between shortstop and third base. It's easy to imagine the criticism he would have taken had he hit into a double play. You don't swing at the first pitch when a pitcher is scuffling with his control, right? Nonsense. Hitting is about getting a good pitch to hit. Byrd saw one he liked and made Bailey and the Reds pay for it.

Byrd's double nearly was a home run, maybe missing by an inch or two. While the umpires reviewed the play just to make sure they got the call right, Byrd did push-ups at second base. Working to improve his strength, you know? It was cute. Byrd still was all smiles a few moments later when he scored in front of Pedro Alvarez, who crushed a Bailey pitch 443 feet to center for a home run that pushed the lead to 4-1. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with Alvarez's strength. It was his 35th home run and gave him 99 RBIs.

It's no wonder Byrd is among the happiest Pirates these days. He turned 36 Aug. 30 and has played 12 seasons in the big leagues. He has played in 1,249 regular-season games but not a single one in the postseason.

That will change Tuesday night.

Byrd has done plenty of heavy lifting to get the Pirates there for the first time in 21 years.

The Pirates knew they were getting a pretty good hitter when they traded for Byrd. He was having a big year with the New York Mets with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs. Even then it seemed like a great trade for Huntington, getting Byrd to fill the team's gaping hole in right field for prospects Vic Black and Dilson Herrera.

But the deal looks like an absolute heist today. Byrd came in hacking; he hit a three-run home run in his first game with the Pirates Aug. 28, a 7-1 win against the Milwaukee Brewers. He hasn't stopped hitting. He has hit safely in 21 of his 29 games with the Pirates and is batting .301 for them with two home runs and 15 RBIs.

"We knew he would do significant damage against left-handed pitching," Huntington said. "But he's come in and done significant damage against right-handers, as well. He has such a simple swing. The ball just explodes off his bat."

It's a good thing Byrd has done so well because the other two players Huntington brought in -- Justin Morneau and John Buck -- haven't done much.

Morneau went 0 for 3 Friday night and, despite hitting .260 in 24 games with the Pirates, doesn't have a home run and has just three RBIs. And people complain about Alvarez hitting clean-up? It's getting harder and harder to believe that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle keeps writing in Morneau in the four-hole.

"There are times he gets outside himself trying to get too much done in a hurry offensively," Hurdle said.

The Pirates are hoping Morneau relaxes -- quickly -- and starts hitting like the guy who had nine home runs in August for the Minnesota Twins.

Buck, who came in the Byrd trade from the Mets, has played in only eight games with the Pirates. There's a good chance he won't be on the postseason roster as the backup catcher. Tony Sanchez has done more to deserve it.

Regardless, Morneau and Buck are on a team that's headed to the playoffs, an opportunity they didn't have this season in Minnesota and New York.

They owe Byrd a thank-you call after the season, as well.

pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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