Prior to Wednesday night’s 7-5 Red Sox win over Baltimore (for recap click here), Kym Byrd had her concerns.
Some time after her family’s decision in January that Paul Byrd, her husband, would stiff-arm legitimate offers to play major-league baseball to be with his family for the next six months, and well before the 38-year-old’s five-inning, two-run performance against the Orioles, at Fenway Park, doubts had crept into Kym’s psyche.
“On one hand there was so much fun, just to have the routine we had and be able to go to every single one of our sons' games and for Paul to be able to coach. And he got to plant a garden, and he has always wanted to do that,” she said. “I told him, ‘If you get picked up by a team and there is a harvest and I’m out there doing this harvest work, I’m going to kill you. It will be my luck that he finally gets this whole garden going and I’m the one stuck with it.”
“It was ready to go, but I planted like 50 pumpkins and I’ve only got four,” Paul explained. “And all of my tomato bushes died. My corn died. My cucumbers grew but they’re crooked. So what I discovered was -- soil is extremely important, so is following directions, and I’m a ballplayer, not a gardener. But I guess the positives are that I have four pumpkins.”
And, as was evidenced by his third outing with the Red Sox this season, Byrd has so much more than just a few stray Jack-O-Laterns.
In the here-and-now, Byrd took another step toward answering his own question regarding whether or not he could still live the life of a viable big-league hurler. His focus is discovering what has left and then deciding if the ‘plan’ executed this time around can be duplicated next season.
That blueprint? Spend the season’s first few months with his two young sons, helping coach their youth baseball teams, perhaps hook up a big league team as summer vacation is getting rolling, and give that club whatever he has for the season’s second half.
And maybe, this time around, understand that Georgian red clay isn’t conducive to vegetable growing.
“I’m going to do the same thing until I can’t offer anybody anything, until I can’t bring anything to the table,” Byrd said. “So I think this year is really important to prove that.”
Wednesday night’s outing was certainly a step in the right direction for Byrd.
The performance wasn’t dominating by any means, but it was certainly good enough. There were five innings, two runs, six hits, 83 pitches, and a fastball that touched 88 mph. The pumpkins might have offered discouragement, but Byrd’s third start this season certainly didn’t.
Add in the memories and experiences he got a chance to build with his two sons, Grayson and Colby, the likes of which hadn’t been possible throughout Byrd’s 14-year major league career, and it certainly looks like the pitcher’s unorthodox approach to completing a baseball season has panned out.
“I would have just liked to have started a little sooner,” Byrd said. “But given all my opportunities, I would have done the exact same thing.”
Byrd had a family sitting back near Atlanta watching him hold off the Orioles, while thinking the exact same thing.
Coming back after taking nine months off and jumping into the middle of a pennant race was hard for Byrd, but it paled in comparison to his wife’s struggles when it came to watching her husband go through one of the toughest decisions of his life earlier this year.
“It was so hard because I don’t want to come across that I’m not grateful for baseball because baseball has opened up some amazing doors for us. People, friends, places to live, and financially it has been a gift,” Kym said. “But I know, as a mom, I have two boys (13 and 11) and they need their dad, too. The last thing I would want to do is ask him to quit and two years from now he wishes he could play, but he can’t and he turns that back on me. It’s a really tough thing.
“It is hard. People have this image of a baseball wife of someone who sits at home, doing our nails, doing nothing, thinking, ‘What’s the big deal, we have all this money and we can shop?’ But I’m raising two kids by myself and there are decisions with school and things that arise. I was teasing him that when one of our kids get in trouble he would always be like, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that,’ and I told him it must be so nice to discipline from five states away and then have the kids be mad at me for two days. It’s a challenge.”
The Byrds – who have moved nearly 40 times – are living that life once again, but only for a few months, and after building up enough togetherness to make up for a brief run at what would be Paul’s first World Series.
The coaching of the youth baseball team was great, as was a family trip to Cooperstown, and, of course, the garden. But just when Kym was convinced Paul had settled into his new life, glimpses of his old one would appear.
“He got in a little bit of a routine,” she said. “There were times where he was like, ‘I’m retired,’ but then there was this part of him that … I was OK. I’ve got to go on this great adventure. I know he has told everybody I said a while ago that he needed to quit because (bouncing around the minors) was crazy and we couldn’t keep living in debt. But on the other hand I know him and he’s such a competitor.
“I was ready for him to be doing things like drinking in the closet, or not wanting to get out of bed for a month. But it was strange. There was none of that. But I do think as time went on there was that little spark in him that just loves to compete, and that took over.”
Leading him to moments like Wednesday night.
“He is so excited to be back,” Kym said. “But it is hard because he has been home so much and he misses the kids so much. You just can’t have everything.”
But, if the last nine months are any indication, Byrd has had plenty. And judging by his work thus far, there might be more to come.
There was, of course, more that we learned on the night the Red Sox remained two games ahead of the Rangers in the Wild Card standings…
MARTINEZ WAS CLUTCH…
Victor Martinez was undeniably the offensive hero of the game, launching a first-pitch, three-run double into left-center field with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, breaking a 4-4 tie.
The timing evidently was perfect for Martinez, who is now 11-for-27 (.407) for his career as a pinch-hitter, while notching six hits in 12 at-bats with 15 RBI in bases loaded situations this season.
For his career, Martinez was also hitting .385 when putting the first pitch in play, a situation in which he was performing at a .351 clip at this year.
So when Red Sox manager Terry Francona was presented with the opportunity to send up Martinez – whom he had given the day off to help temper the fact he had caught 21 times since coming to the Sox after manning the position 52 games for the Indians – it was too good to pass up.
"He's just a good hitter," Francona said. "I think he enjoys that situation, for sure. He'd rather have been starting, but it's nice that on nights he hasn't started, he's sitting there ready to hit."
(As a side note, Martinez’ double was his 30th of the season, helping him join Joe Torre (36 in 1964) as the only two players to record 30 or more doubles in a season while playing at least 50 games at both catcher and first base.)
… AND BAY CONTINUED TO BE CONSISTENT
Jason Bay notched three hits and two RBI, leading the outfielder to his fourth 100 RBI season of his career. It was the latest example of the left fielder finding his level.
Since Aug. 1, when he had seen his average dip to a season-low .250, Bay has hit .306 with 11 homers and 26 RBI. Thus far this month, he has claimed a .344 batting average over nine games.
So now, with the bump in the road behind him, could a cause for the downturn be identified? Was the weight of a contract negotiation contributing to the woes?
“There’s no story there,” Bay said. “I wish I could tell you I was taking multi-vitamins or something, but I think it’s just when you get on a roll it’s easier to stay on it and when you’re not on it you’re out there making stuff up trying to find it.
“I think it’s very, very coincidental. It never, ever consciously weighed on my mind. By no means did I ever give it a thought. But timing-wise it did run into an interesting parallel. This stuff happens all the time.”
WAGNER IS IN CONTROL…
Billy Wagner came on for another seventh-inning appearance (the 12th time in his career he has pitched in the seventh, and third instance with the Red Sox), and threw yet another scoreless inning, this time striking out two.
The encouraging signs appear to keep on coming for the 38-year-old, with his slider appearing to jump to the forefront this time. Wagner threw the pitch on eight of his 16 pitches (13 strikes), getting Melvin Mora to ground out on the pitch, while it got Matt Wieters on a swinging strike three.
But, according to the lefty, it was not the case.
“It was terrible today,” said Wagner of his slider. “They took so many flat sliders, it was awful. I only threw one that was halfway decent, striking out Wieters, but the other ones were really flat.”
There was, however, something Wagner could highlight when looking back at his first win since Aug. 12, 2007.
“Control was good,” said the reliever, who has struck out 13 of the 20 batters he has retired this season. “Control was good.”
The reason for Wagner’s continued solid command of the strike zone – which can often be one of the last aspects of pitching found by hurlers coming off Tommy John surgery – can be traced back to his work at the University of Virginia.
“That first day they told me I could throw from 45 feet, I had the pitching coach from UVA (Karl Kuhn) get down and I made sure I was throwing down to a catcher,” Wagner said. “I wanted to start building that muscle memory as soon as I could. That made a big difference.”
…AND SO WAS RAMIREZ
While Martinez’ double was the most monumental offensive achievement, Ramon Ramirez’ back-to-back strikeouts of Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis with the bases loaded and the Orioles leading by a run in the sixth was the most monumental pitching performance of the night for the Red Sox.
Ramirez, who had followed up one of Manny Delcarmen’s roughest outings of the season (2 hits, walk, one batter retired), was greeted by a first-pitch RBI single from Felix Pie. After that, the reliever did his job, and then some.
“That was huge,” said Sox reliever Daniel Bard, who came on to pitch a scoreless 2/3 innings in the eighth. “Those were big outs right there. His thing is just keeping the ball down. When he’s down with his change-up and that 94-95 mph fastball, when those two pitches are down he’s unhittable. It’s just when he gets up in the zone a little bit is when he gets touched up. But he was good today. I’m happy for him.
In other news, Mike Lowell stole his first base of the season when Jason Varitek swung and missed at an attempted hit-and-run. It marked the 10th straight season Lowell has had at least one stolen base.
Dusty Brown got his first major league at-bat, hitting what appeared to be a sure single to left off former Red Sox reliever Cla Meredith. But Baltimore shortstop Cesar Izturis leaped up and made a spectacular catch, which turned into a 6-4 double play, spoiling the young catcher’s big moment.
“I knew I hit it well,” Brown said. “I didn’t really have time to think. Before I knew he had caught it. It didn’t really work out the way I wanted. I was telling myself just not to ground into a double play. Swing hard. Either hit it hard or strikeout.”