Byrd Takes Off In Nats Debut

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The right-handed part of the platoon had not worked thus far. The Washington Nationals had tried J.J. Davis, watched him strike out on breaking pitches in the dirt, and sent him to the minor leagues. They had tried veteran Jeffrey Hammonds, his best days behind him, and watched him collect just two hits in 17 at-bats.

So welcome to town, Marlon Byrd. For your first at-bat, start with a little dribbler to third base that turns into an RBI single. Your second time up, break your bat on a single up the middle. Third at-bat? Well, why not lace a line drive off the wall in left-center? That would be the two-run double that broke open the Nationals' 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers last night before the 26,606 newest members of the Marlon Byrd Fan Club, assembled at RFK Stadium.

"Welcome to the club," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Byrd's 3-for-4, three-RBI evening came just two days after he was traded by Philadelphia to the Nationals for underperforming outfielder Endy Chavez, a classic change-of-scenery move. Byrd got used to his scenery first, powering right-hander Tony Armas Jr. to his first win since July 23, a seven-inning display that showed why the Nationals have so much faith in him despite his injury-riddled past. Third baseman Vinny Castilla helped with a 3-for-4 night of his own, one that featured his fourth homer, and the Nationals won for the third straight day.

But Byrd's performance stood out, not only because of what it provided last night, but because of what the Nationals will go through over the remainder of the four-game series against the Brewers. After Robinson watched Jose Guillen go 0 for 3 -- making him 5 for his last 28 -- the manager pulled aside his slugging right fielder, knowing he has a badly strained muscle in his right rib cage, and asked him to take a few days off.

Guillen, reluctantly, agreed. After playing in the Nationals' first 38 games, he almost certainly won't appear the rest of the homestand, which ends Thursday.

"I'm just really banged-up," Guillen said. "This is going to be the best for me and the best for the team to shut it down. I really cannot swing the bat right now. I'm not 100 percent."

Given Guillen's recent struggles, Robinson is convinced sitting him down -- even if it further thins the already thin Nationals lineup -- is the right move. Guillen, noted for wanting to play every day and temperamental when he's not in the lineup, smiled about the decision after the game. After managing a weak grounder and two lazy popups, resting seemed best.

"What it's affecting most right now is his offense," Robinson said. "He's not swinging the bat anywhere close to the way he can swing the bat. The ball is not coming off the bat the way it normally does."

But it came off Byrd's bat in the fifth. Castilla's solo homer gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead after four, and Armas appeared to be cruising. He was making just his second start after beginning the season on the disabled list with a groin strain, but he kept the Brewers off-balance by moving his fastball to both sides of the plate. He worked out of a jam in the third, allowing a run but leaving the bases loaded.

"He has the full package," Robinson said. "When he's on, he's on."

Which he was, allowing just two runs and five hits in those seven innings. And in the fifth, the Nationals gave him everything he would need. Brad Wilkerson -- now hitting a ridiculous .417 against lefties -- led off with a single. Jamey Carroll bunted Wilkerson to second, and Nick Johnson provided one insurance run by singling off the glove of Brewers second baseman Junior Spivey. After Castilla singled, Byrd came to the plate with runners at the corners.

In Philadelphia, Byrd had fallen down the bench, the fifth outfielder. When he walked in the clubhouse door Sunday morning, just hours after being traded, Robinson -- who had offered to drive his car to Philadelphia and pick Byrd up, he was so excited at the prospect of bringing him aboard -- sat down his new player and said he would begin by playing against left-handers.

"When people believe in you, it really helps," Byrd said, "and I think he believes in everybody on this team."

Brewers starter Doug Davis left a cut fastball over the heart of the plate, and Byrd drilled it. He pumped his fist when he stopped at second. New club, fresh start, better results. Indeed, welcome to the club.

"You don't want to go out there after a trade and go 0 for 4," Byrd said. "You'd rather put together some good at-bats and show these guys: I can play."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company