Tim Byrdak answers the call
The veteran and Mets' lone left-hander in bullpen pitches often
It's not as if Tim Byrdak is keeping careful count, but the fact of the matter is that the Mets left-handed relief specialist is on a pace to appear in more than 90 games this season.
And that's fine with him.
"The numbers will work themselves out in the course of a season," the 38-year-old pitcher said. "At that pace, you'll fall down a little bit here and there, but I'm not worried about it. I don't want to pitch every day, but I like to get as much work in as possible."
He's come to the right place for that.
Byrdak is the lone left-hander in the Mets' bullpen, and his ability to retire left-handed hitters has made him invaluable to manager Terry Collins. He did not allow a hit in 23 of his first 28 appearances this season and was unscored upon in 25 of those outings covering 14 innings. Often, he is a one-batter pitcher, called on to face a left-handed slugger in a tight situation. More times than not, he succeeds. In his career, lefties are hitting .202 against him.
Byrdak came to the Majors with Kansas City in 1998, and there were stops in Baltimore and Detroit before he became a workhorse with Houston in 2008, when he appeared in 59 games. That went up to 76 games the next year, then 64 and 72 when he came to the Mets in 2011.
He has a pretty good handle on when he might be needed in a game.
"Most of the time you get plenty of time to know who's coming up in the lineup," he said. "You follow along with what Terry is doing out there. I have a set routine to get ready and it works pretty good. I'll throw fastballs to this side, fastballs to that side, mix in everything we need to go to war with. Then, you go get outs."
It sounds simple, but it wasn't always that way. Things did not go smoothly at the start for Byrdak, when he first reached the Majors.
Recalled by the Royals, who were in the middle of a dreadful season, he flew to New York and arrived at about 1 a.m.
"I didn't receive too much information. My brother Kevin told me we had a split doubleheader. I got in the shower about 9:30 and then I got a call from the traveling secretary, who said I had missed the bus and I had to get to the ballpark ASAP."
The ballpark was Yankee Stadium, a baseball cathedral and a tough venue for a rookie pitcher to make his Major League debut. Byrdak found his way to the bullpen, and in the sixth inning with two men on base, manager Tony Muser needed a left-hander to face Tino Martinez.
"I was extremely nervous," Byrdak said. "I threw a 3-2 fastball, letter high. He hit it off the right-center wall for a double."
The inherited runners scored on the play.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'A couple of years ago I was collecting their baseball cards,' and here I was on the mound, supposed to be getting them out," Byrdak said. "Kind of a weird thing."
Next up were Darryl Strawberry and Tim Raines, two more baseball cards in the batter's box.
"Strawberry popped up to first and Raines popped up to third and the inning was over," Byrdak said.
And with that, he allowed himself a sigh of relief. He also pitched in the second game of the doubleheader, allowing a home run to Shane Spencer. After one more cameo appearance, he returned to the Minors.
There were some ups and downs after that, but eventually Byrdak established himself as a dependable Major League reliever.
But that first game in Yankee Stadium?
"You never forget that," he said.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.