Valuable veteran Byrd comes through for Tribe

Francona praises outfielder's 'smart' hitting, athleticism

Valuable veteran Byrd comes through for Tribe

CLEVELAND -- There was a chance that the ball might be caught, so Indians baserunner Francisco Lindor held his position beyond second base as Jose Ramirez closed in from first. Once the deep fly dropped beyond the reach of Twins center fielder Danny Santana, Lindor and Ramirez were off to the races with a win in their sights.

Separated by only a few steps, the pair of Cleveland runners crossed home plate one after the other as the Progressive Field crowd roared with delight. At second base, Marlon Byrd pumped his fist after his two-run double gave the Indians a lead in the eighth inning, igniting a late rally that helped the Tribe pull off a 7-6 comeback victory on Friday.

"We battled with those guys," Byrd said. "To come out on top was good."

This was the kind of moment the Indians had in mind when they signed Byrd back in March.

With Michael Brantley sidelined during the spring with a right shoulder issue -- one that has resurfaced in recent days -- Cleveland wanted to inject some veteran experience into its outfield. Byrd had been waiting for an opportunity to play a 15th Major League season. As Opening Day approached, he went without a job until March 18, when the Indians only offered a chance to compete for a spot on the roster.

Byrd secured that job and has served as a part-time corner outfielder for the Indians through the season's first six weeks. It has not been all smooth sailing for the aging slugger -- trying to fire up his swing without the luxury of a full spring slate was not easy -- but he has showed his offensive value in spurts.

Against Minnesota, Byrd got his engine going with a game-tying sacrifice fly in the sixth inning and then a go-ahead, two-run double in the eighth.

Byrd's sacrifice fly

"He's a smart hitter," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You don't last as long as he has just by being strong or athletic. He's kept his body in real good shape, and he's a smart hitter and he's gotten some big hits. I do think, without playing him every day, I think we can play him enough where he can get his legs under him and get his timing and do some damage and help us win games."

Through 23 games for Cleveland, Byrd's breakthroughs have been sporadic. He began by hitting .302 through April 25, but then he slipped into a 1-for-18 cold spell in the batter's box. The 38-year-old outfielder has collected four hits since that stretch and the Tribe can only hope that a night like Friday can help get the veteran going in the right direction again.

"I'm working hard," Byrd said. "I'm used to this role. I've been an extra outfielder before -- a fourth, fifth outfielder. So, I've got to work with [our hitting coaches] in the cage, get my swings in during the game when I'm not playing. ... I try to be ready for when they do put me in."

Asked about Byrd's impact since joining the team, Indians catcher Yan Gomes smiled.

"That's big man," Gomes replied. "Like today, he had an unbelievable hit -- big clutch hit -- but he does a little bit more. The guy always has a smile on his face here in the clubhouse. I think that's something that's really important in the -- until this year -- a fairly young clubhouse. Guys like that who have been through a lot, he's brought so much. We're just excited to have him on our side."

Told of Gomes' comments, Byrd said he takes pride in embracing his role as a veteran in the room.

"[It's] not coming in and trying to take over a clubhouse, but fitting in," Byrd said. "And, if you see guys questioning things in their routine or how they're playing, just talking to them, explaining the ups and downs that I've been through in the 15 seasons that I've played in the big leagues. I think it's important for me to fulfill that role. It's not something I'm trying to do. It's just my nature."

Delivering in the clutch certainly goes a long way, too.

"He stayed back on an offspeed pitch and drove it," Francona said. "Fortunately, it got over the center fielder's head. ... The baserunners did a good job. It was a good game to win, because it was a hard game to win."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.