Baseball / Sports

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, left, of the Miami Marlins scores against Carlos Ruiz, right, of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2nd inning at Citizens Bank Park on June 24, 2014, in Philadelphia. (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Byrd's home run helps Phillies to fast start

PHILADELPHIA -- On Monday night, soon after Marlon Byrd capitulated for the final out in another Phillies shutout, the rightfielder grabbed a bat and settled into the black leather chair adjacent to his locker. Byrd, hitless in four at-bats, examined the wooden weapon. While seated, he mimicked his stroke with extra attention to the timing and placement of his hands.

When he stepped to the plate Tuesday in the first inning of a 7-4 Phillies win over Miami, he did not miss an Andrew Heaney fastball. It exploded from the rookie lefthander's hand at 94 mph and split the heart of home plate.

A fan seated in the fourth row -- just to the left of the 409-foot marker -- plucked the ball, a two-run homer, from the concrete floor. Byrd circled the bases for the 13th time; the Phillies brandished a 3-0 lead.

They scored two runs on wild pitches and another on an error. David Buchanan threw as many balls as he did strikes but survived five innings. Three runs in the sixth helped compensate for B.J. Rosenberg's stumbles in the eighth.

Byrd provided the first-inning cushion. Two years ago, Byrd decided to trade strikeouts for power. He was stained by a performance-enhancing drug suspension and retreated to a batting cage in suburban Los Angeles and then to Mexico for a resurrection.

Power is a commodity in a modern game ruled by pitching. It earned Byrd a $16 million contract last winter, and it could make him attractive to other teams come July. The 36-year-old outfielder's 13 home runs are enough to crack the bottom of the National League leader board.

Byrd is hitting .260 with a .785 OPS. That ranks second on the Phillies, behind presumptive all-star second baseman Chase Utley.

He smashed 16 home runs for the Mets through a similar amount of plate appearances last season. His strikeout and walk numbers are almost identical. He is hitting fly balls at a higher rate than ever -- by design -- and his home run rate is close to matching that of last season's. Those are signs that can dispel the notion of 2013 as an aberration.

Byrd faced questions all last summer about his sudden rise. That, after a suspension, was to be expected. The Mets were able to flip Byrd, signed on a minor-league deal, for a potential setup man and a promising young shortstop prospect from Pittsburgh. Byrd joined a contending club, helped it make the postseason, and produced. He finished the season with 24 homers. That recent history will entice others.

Byrd, unlike so many of the Phillies' trade chips, does not possess no-trade rights. He is owed $8 million next season and could trigger another $8 million for 2016 by reaching various plate-appearance plateaus. The Phillies, president David Montgomery said last week, are willing to assume financial risks in exchange for talent.

The Phillies will not yet consider such dilemmas, but that moment could arrive soon. A night like Tuesday, which snapped a three-game losing streak, will create pause. But those moments are fleeting.

Utley dropped two pop-ups, which qualified as the only strange happening Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park. He converted one lapse into an out. The first mistake, with the bases loaded in the second, conceded a run. Utley appeared to take his eyes off each ball.

The second baseman has just three extra-base hits and a .219 batting average in his last 25 games. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, questioned before the game, did not see fatigue in Utley.

"He's shown some good things in batting practice and I think it's just a temporary thing," Sandberg said. "I know that he feels healthy and feels strong, so I think it's just a matter of just being in a little bit of a funk with some timing things at home plate."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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