CLEVELAND — Paul Byrd felt as if he owed the Indians something after signing a big contract with the team and producing a dismal debut season in 2006.
The veteran right-hander has gone a long way to paying his debt this year.
Thanks to what might have been Byrd’s best performance of the season, the Indians are a win away from completing a perfect seven-game homestand after shutting out the White Sox 7-0 on Saturday night.
The victory, which came in front of the seventh sellout crowd of the season (41,131), extended Cleveland’s winning streak to a season-high eight games, ensuring that its Central Division lead would remain at 5½ games.
“He controlled the ballgame, and he did it from the first inning on,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge of Byrd, who tossed his second shutout of the season to help Cleveland improve to 78-57 and reach its win total from last year. “He never put himself in a position where it could domino on him.
“He’s pitched well for us all year. He felt like he wanted to be a bigger part of things this year, and he most definitely has been.”
Highly efficient was the most appropriate description of Byrd’s effort against the struggling Sox, who lost their 11th consecutive road game and for the 18th time in their last 21 games overall.
Byrd (14-5, 4.19) allowed just four hits and just two through the first eight innings, one on an infield single from Jerry Owens with one out in the fourth.
At one point, Byrd, who threw 78 of his 110 pitches for strikes, had thrown 51 pitches, with just nine of them balls.
He faced the minimum through seven innings, retiring 12 straight after allowing Owens’ hit and 14 of 15 through the eighth inning.
“It just felt like my night out there,” said Byrd, who credited an effective fastball for much of his success. “It was a lot of fun. Did you guys see me hit 91 (mph)? Because it’s Sept. 1 and I wanted to show all the young guys coming up that I can still hit 90 when I have to.”
Byrd has also proven he can still win when he has to. He’s won four straight starts and seven of his last eight decisions.
The shutout was on the line in the final inning after the Sox loaded the bases with one out, but Byrd struck out Jim Thome looking and got Paul Konerko to fly to right to end the game.
“I really wanted a shutout,” Byrd said. “I don’t know if that’s selfish with a seven-run lead, but I really wanted it.”
Cleveland’s hitters backed Byrd with four runs in six innings off White Sox starter Javier Vazquez, who lost for just the third time in his last 15 starts, allowing eight hits and striking out six.
The Indians scored once in the third, then added two in the fourth — the first on a one-out solo home run from Franklin Gutierrez. Cleveland scored single runs in the sixth and seventh before Kelly Shoppach capped the output with a two-run homer off Sox reliever Ryan Bukvich in the eighth.
“They kept going,” Wedge said of his offense, which after struggling for much of the second half, has caught fire of late, batting .292, while averaging 5.4 runs over its last 15 games. “It wasn’t just one big inning. It was a run here and a run there.”
Casey Blake was one of four Indians to enjoy multihit games, driving in a pair of runs — both coming with runners in scoring position. Blake, who entered the game hitting .175 with runners in scoring position, has collected three straight hits in those situations.
“We’re all guilty of pressing at times,” Blake said. “But I think that stat sometimes is a coincidental-type stat. A lot of people pay a lot of attention to that. You could be hitting .220 and have all your hits come with runners in scoring position.”
Byrd’s victory gives the Indians three pitchers with at least 14 wins – C.C. Sabathia has 15 and Fausto Carmona 14 — the only team in baseball to boast as much.
Wedge and his players have said for a while that the team has yet to play its best baseball. Riding their longest winning streak of the season, with 13 wins in their last 16 games, is there any denying the Indians have finally arrived at that point?
“I think we’re playing some good baseball right now,” Wedge said. “I’ve said all along that we’re at our best when all the particular areas on our club are doing their jobs. No one area has to be great.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or email@example.com.