It took the well-traveled outfielder all of four at-bats to become one of the cool kids on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The former Sprayberry High School star celebrated his arrival to the NL Central pennant race with a three-run home run, an epic strikeout, two standing ovations and a curtain call in Pittsburgh’s 7-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night.
Quite an entrance for a player who 24 hours earlier was playing for the New York Mets.
Thrust abruptly into the middle of a pennant race, Byrd provided the kind of immediate jolt the Pirates were looking for when they traded for the former All-Star along with backup catcher John Buck on Tuesday.
“You want to feel accepted,” Byrd said. “I felt accepted all day long.”
Smile plastered on his face from the moment he was introduced as the cleanup hitter, Byrd made an immediate impression, lining into a double play in his first at-bat. He followed that up with a 14-pitch duel against Milwaukee’s Tom Gorzelanny (3-6), a showdown that ended with Byrd flailing at strike three before being serenaded with a roar on his way back to the dugout.
“That was amazing,” Byrd said. “I was upset with myself that I didn’t finish the at-bat but to hear the fans cheering, that was a beautiful thing.”
No matter. Byrd repaid the favor and then some in the seventh, drilling a fastball from Milwaukee reliever Burke Badenhop into the bushes in center field for his 22nd home run of the season.
The 35-year-old sprinted around the bases and was so lost in the moment he needed Pittsburgh ace A.J. Burnett to tell him to head back to the top step so he could tip his cap.
“Coming in I was so excited,” Byrd said. “It was ‘Hey, get back out there.’”
Byrd’s flair for the dramatic completed a night Pittsburgh (77-55) moved within five victories of the franchise’s first winning season in a generation.
Josh Harrison went 3-for-4 with an RBI for the Pirates and Andrew McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez added two hits apiece. Charlie Morton (6-3) scattered five hits over 6 2/3 innings, walking three and striking out two to pick up his first career victory over the Brewers.
Not that Morton noticed. The right-hander called his futility against Milwaukee “needless information” because it has little bearing on the future.
“I think it’s something people like to talk about because there’s been some consistency in that regard but really what the team is doing really well is not thinking about yesterday or two weeks ago, it’s the game today,” Morton said. “If it’s the Brewers, it’s the Brewers, so be it. This is a different year anyway.”
Gorzelanny yielded four runs on nine hits in 5 1/3 innings, walking one and striking out five. Carlos Gomez had two of Milwaukee’s seven hits but the Brewers offered little resistance against Morton’s steady dose of sinkers.
“Offensively, we hit a few balls that could have got something going but on the whole we just didn’t do too much,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
The Pirates did plenty, with their new slugger providing the finishing touch. Gorzelanny, who spent five seasons with the Pirates from 2005-09, can see Byrd’s presence having a positive influence in the clubhouse.
“He’s a good piece that they got,” Gorzelanny said. “He’s a smart player. He plays the game the right way, he plays it hard. Having a ballplayer like this, who is always a tough out, is going to make their lineup better.”
The homer was more celebratory than critical after Morton handcuffed the Brewers to end years of futility against Pittsburgh’s biggest nemesis. Milwaukee has won more than 70 percent of its games against Pittsburgh since 2007 and came in 4-0 against Morton.
That run of dominance is now over. Morton, still finding his way back from Tommy John surgery, dominated after some early trouble. The Brewers put four runners on base in the first inning but couldn’t score and Morton took care of matters from there. He retired nine straight at one point and would have worked deeper if not for a rare mental mistake by catcher Russell Martin.
Leading by four in the seventh, Martin tried to pick Yuniesky Betancourt off first. The ball sailed into right field, allowing Scooter Gennett to score.
Byrd’s long ball restored order and the Pirates exhaled while clinching the season series against the Brewers for the first time since 2006.