A funny thing happened when Paul Byrd threw a first-pitch fastball to Alex Rodriguez in Sunday's fourth inning. It sailed in at 87 miles per hour -- and Rodriguez swung right through it.
"I felt like my fastball was beating a lot of good hitters in," Byrd said after Sunday's game. "They knew it was coming, and it was still beating them. That's the old me."
That, though, isn't quite true. The old Byrd has given away to a new Byrd in recent weeks, an adjustment made in collaboration with pitching coach John Farrell helping the 38-year-old veteran get a little extra velocity on his fastball. For Byrd, whose fastball registers as slower than Daniel Bard's changeup, every extra mile per hour cuonts.
"John Farrell has me twisting and rotating a little bit more," Byrd said, "and it's been phenomenal for me. I'm throwing the ball upper 80s -- I even hit 90 a few times last game in the sixth inning. With teams past, when I hit 90, we'd throw a team party. My velocity is up and my location is up, and I feel like no one is squaring the ball up too often."
(There's no fancy video equipment here at OneIf headquarters, so you'll have to bear with me as we try to compare two similar points in the pitcher's delivery. It's not perfect, but it's a pretty decent representation.)
First, Byrd in his first game back in the majors in August...
... and, second, Byrd against the Yankees on Sunday:
See the little extra depth to his shoulders, the way they're square to the shortstop rather than to the third baseman? It's subtle, but it's apparently working.
It's not just helping him with his velocity, either.
"It really, really helps my cut fastball," Byrd said, "which I need to lefthanders when it's cutting, darting up and in. They got some hits today, but it wasn't solid contact all over the place."
That's how Byrd ducked and dodged his way through as potent a lineup as there is in the game, a lineup full of lefties and switch-hitters who can make life miserable on a righty without his best command. He left a couple of changeups over the plate -- Melky Cabrera hit one of them for a solo home run -- but otherwise managed to prevent the Yankees from making solid contact with much of anything he threw at them.
It wasn't until Alex Rodriguez fought through a 10-pitch at-bat with two outs in the sixth that Byrd was lifted. He pounded the outer half of the strike zone with fastballs and cutters that Rodriguez repeatedly fouled away, and a slider that caught way too much of the plate eventually did him in.
"The A-Rod at-bat, I threw him some really good pitches and he fouled them off," Byrd said. "I just couldn't put him away. Sometimes you have to give them a little credit. He fouled off some very good pitches. I usually do very well against him, and he hit a slider into center field. Next thing you know, we're down."
His repertoire is enough to send smoke streaming from the pitch charts. His velocity doesn't ever top 90. There's almost no way to distinguish his four-seam fastball from his cutter. But he had allowed just one run to the Yankees in Yankee Stadium when he walked off the mound, and it wasn't only about luck.
He isn't going to get a start in the playoffs -- but should something happen, including an unexpected injury or early exit by a starting pitcher, his effectiveness on Sunday will make it far easier for Red Sox manager Terry Francona to call on him.
"I feel like my stuff is getting better and I'm getting sharper with each outing," Byrd said. "I'm not happy that I'm giving up runs. I'm not happy that I lost the game. But I do feel like I'm throwing the ball well and giving us a chance to win."