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Must C Clutch: Byrd hits a two-run walk-off single

NEW YORK -- It is only natural for Marlon Byrd to accept his part-time job with the Mets, considering how desperate he once was for any job at all. Stuck in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico this winter, wondering "if any organization was going to take a flyer on me," Byrd signed with the Mets late in the offseason despite no clearly defined role.

In Queens, he has settled in as part of Terry Collins' mad outfield experiment, seeking harmony and playing time alongside five others. The motley family has somehow succeeded. Byrd hit a walk-off, two-run single in the ninth inning Sunday, giving the Mets a 4-3 win over the Marlins and further justifying this unorthodox outfield mix.

"We have no egos, no selfishness," Byrd said. "It's about getting better."

The Mets appear to be doing just that, opening the season with consecutive series wins for the first time since 2006. It all seemed unlikely until Marlins closer Steve Cishek plunked Ruben Tejada with a pitch in the ninth, giving the Mets some one-out life.

The next batter, pinch-hitter (and fellow part-time outfielder) Kirk Nieuwenhuis, poked a single in front of a no-doubles defense. Seeking to stay aggressive, Tejada scampered to third base, allowing Nieuwenhuis to advance to second as the potential winning run.

"He don't have a great arm," Tejada said of Marlins left fielder Juan Pierre. "That's why I took the chance."

His aggression proved critical. Byrd, who struck out in twice in key situations earlier in the game, stranding multiple runners in scoring position, grounded a Cishek sinker past a drawn-in infield, squirting it just inside the third-base bag for the game-winner.

"It was nice to finally come through in the end," Byrd said.

For most of the three-hour, 38-minute marathon, frustration was the prevailing emotion. Making his Major League debut at age 20, Marlins starter Jose Fernandez was electric, striking out six of the first 12 batters he faced. Though Fernandez remained perfect into the fourth, the Marlins pulled him after five innings and 80 pitches, having allowed nothing more than Anthony Recker's RBI double. In Marlins manager Mike Redmond's eyes, Fernandez "deserved to win the game."

Trouble surfaced immediately when Daniel Murphy greeted Miami's first reliever, A.J. Ramos, with a leadoff homer in the sixth. But despite putting the potential tying run in scoring position two innings in a row, the Mets could not convert until Byrd's hit in the ninth.

Credit the bullpen for creating all those chances. After spot starter Aaron Laffey coughed up 10 hits and three runs over 4 1/3 innings, Greg Burke wriggled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth. Burke and four others combined on 4 2/3 scoreless innings, keeping the Mets close all afternoon.

"Fantastic job, everybody through and through," said Burke, who threw more breaking balls in an attempt to generate strikeouts, rather than relying always on ground balls. "We picked each other up."

That might as well be the mantra for New York's outfield, which absorbed criticism all winter from fans, the media, and even the club's own general manager. After the Mets missed out on acquiring veteran Michael Bourn early in February, they resigned themselves to an unimproved outfield alignment.

The only new face was Byrd, who shined in Mexico before reporting to Spring Training. In a daily jigsaw puzzle, Collins has mixed and matched Byrd with Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Collin Cowgill and Jordany Valdespin; the only constant has been Lucas Duda in left.

Collins believes that distributing starts among those outfielders has served to keep them all sharp, better preparing them for pinch-hit opportunities. Remember Nieuwenhuis' big hit in the ninth? That's the type of thing that Collins has envisioned.

"If you're on the bench one game, it doesn't have any meaning," Nieuwenhuis said. "As long as we're all contributing … that's all that matters."

It helps that all six players provide different skills, from Nieuwenhuis' defense to Baxter's patience to Valdespin's electricity to Cowgill's right-handed pop. It also helps that Byrd, the lone veteran of the group, has accepted his part-time role in Flushing. What's more, he seems to have embraced it, serving as a resource for his younger teammates

"I can answer any questions," Byrd said. "I've been everything from a multi-year deal, to a suspension, to outrighted, to designated for assignment, to traded. I ended up living in a lot of cities. I'm just a guy who can come in here and help."

Of course, nothing helps more than winning baseball, particularly early in the season while the team's schedule is soft. The Mets could have escaped their first homestand with a .500 record, winning three of their first six against the Padres and Marlins.

Instead, they took four of six in a late turn of events.

"If we hang around long enough," said Byrd, remnants of a whip-cream pie still in his hair, "we always have a fighting chance."

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