BY WILL GRAVES
Marlon Byrd had been in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse for all of five minutes when the newly acquired right fielder found his name penciled in as the cleanup hitter Wednesday night against Milwaukee.
Asked if he was surprised about being thrown into the lineup so quickly, the 12-year veteran the Pirates hope will help ignite a sagging offense just smiled.
“Of course I’m going to play,” Byrd said, laughing. “That’s why I’m here.”
Besides, time is running out. For Byrd and the Pirates both.
Pittsburgh brought in Byrd and reserve catcher John Buck from the New York Mets on Tuesday believing their presence will help the franchise to its first playoff berth in 21 years. That’s fine by the two newcomers, who have played a combined 2,269 games in their respective careers. None of those games, however, have come in the postseason.
It’s why Byrd didn’t complain when New York general manager Sandy Alderson called him early Tuesday morning and told him he headed to Pittsburgh. The timing proved to be a bit awkward. The trade was announced hours before the Mets gave away thousands of Marlon Byrd T-shirts as part of a promotion.
And no, Byrd hasn’t gotten his hands on one yet. It’s a small sacrifice for the chance to go from a team pointing toward the future to one pointing toward October.
“The (Mets) did me a favor,” Byrd said, “by putting me with a contender.”
Now Byrd hopes to pay it forward by continuing his resurgent season for a city looking to end two decades of futility.
Pittsburgh entered play Wednesday trailing St. Louis by 1 1/2 games in the race for the NL Central title, remarkable considering the Pirates are 24th in the majors in team batting average and next to last in batting average with runners in scoring position.
Byrd can ease some of the pressure on Pittsburgh’s pitching staff by remaining in the groove he’s been riding most of the season. The well-traveled Byrd, who turns 36 on Friday, is hitting .285 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs, reviving a career that seemed in trouble when he batted just .210 with one home run in 47 games with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox in 2012.
Realizing he needed to figure out some things if he wanted to stay employed, Byrd spent time in California and Mexico in the offseason working on his swing. Months of tinkering have led to Byrd discovering his own Fountain of Youth.
“You have to be willing to listen,” Byrd said. “I could’ve been stubborn and hardheaded and said I know what I need to do, but I saw that it wasn’t working and it was time to change.”
Byrd’s presence gives the Pirates the punch they’ve lacked in right field, where Garrett Jones, Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider have struggled to provide offense with any sense of consistency.
That hasn’t been a problem this season for Byrd, who has hit .294 since May 1.
“I like the way he plays the game,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s kept his body in great shape and he’s had success before. ... He fits us and we fit him.”
The expectations aren’t quite so high for Buck, who will serve as the primary backup behind Russell Martin. While Buck is hitting just .215, he has 15 homers and 60 RBIs.
“The hits I am getting are coming with guys on base,” Buck said.
That’s all the Pirates need as they try to keep pace with the Cardinals and the Reds. The new arrivals gave the clubhouse a needed jolt in the final days of August, though both players stress they’re not the answer.
Byrd narrowly missed the playoffs in 2003 with Philadelphia and in 2009 with Texas. He’s determined not to let it happen again.
“You never know when you have a chance to play in the postseason,” he said. “This is my one chance. I’m just going to grasp it and embrace it and enjoy the whole thing.”
NOTES: To make room on the 25-man roster, the Pirates optioned C Tony Sanchez and All-Star LHP Jeff Locke to Double-A Altoona. Locke has struggled since being named to the All-Star team in July and is 1-2 with a 6.18 ERA in the second half. General manager Neal Huntington said Locke will take a “short break” and will be recalled when Altoona’s season ends next week ... The Pirates completed the trade to New York by sending RHP Vic Black to the Mets. The 25-year-old Black made three relief appearances this year for Pittsburgh. The Pirates shipped minor league infielder Dilson Herrera to New York when the deal was announced Tuesday.