PITTSBURGH -- One of the main reasons Marlon Byrd is playing center field today is because of former Cubs outfielder and current Pirates bench coach Gary Varsho, who campaigned for the youngster in the Minors.
Varsho was the manager in Reading, Pa., in 2001, and Byrd was on his team at the time but playing left field.
"That year, he was our best player," Varsho said of Byrd, now starting in center for the Cubs. "He was playing the corners. For me, evaluating Marlon Byrd, he needed to be our center fielder because he could do things -- he could get jumps on balls. He just naturally fit in the center-field category. Without wasting too much time, I said this kid needs to play center field."
It's one thing to have a Minor League coach make a suggestion. But Varsho was adamant with the Phillies' organization that center was where Byrd belonged.
"For him to get the opportunity was huge," Varsho said.
What Varsho saw was an athletic player with a good work ethic who could handle the routes and demands involved with playing center. Varsho did admit Byrd looked like he might be a better fit in the NFL as a running back back then.
"Absolutely," Varsho said. "But his mentality was 'Go get 'em, I can do this,' and he did."
At the time, Varsho said, Byrd was still learning his body a little. Byrd's right leg is a half-inch shorter than his left, and his athletic shoes are modified with a slight lift to even things out. That didn't slow Byrd.
"He could take off and go and make the plays," Varsho said.
Josue Perez was the center fielder in Reading at the time. Not for long. Byrd replaced him and proved he belonged there, batting .316 that season.
"[Varsho] is the reason I'm a center fielder," Byrd said of the ex-Cub who played in Chicago from 1988-90. "He's the first guy who told me I could play."
What Varsho also did was help Byrd in matters beyond baseball.
"He's the reason for a lot of things," Byrd said on Wednesday. "He's the reason I went from low [Class] A to Double-A because he fought for me hard. He's the reason for my baseball IQ. He taught me how to get ready for the big leagues. He taught me little things about the game that I didn't know, on and off the field. He wasn't just a manager. He was like a father figure to me."
Varsho doesn't like to take the credit and said Byrd did all the work.
"He was, to me, an easy choice to move to center field to help our pitching staff, to flag down balls and be a good defensive player," Varsho said. "I thought his offense was going to come. I'm so happy for his success. He's a great kid. He's quality.
"Now he's making catches behind his back," Varsho said, laughing. "I didn't teach him that."
Soriano's homer streak ends
PITTSBURGH -- All spring, manager Lou Piniella kept Alfonso Soriano in the sixth spot in the batting order. The left fielder, who accepted being switched from his role as leadoff man, hasn't hit anywhere else this season until Wednesday.
Soriano moved up to fifth in place of struggling Aramis Ramirez in the Cubs' second game of a three-game series against the Pirates. The result: Soriano was 1-for-4 and his homer streak came to an end.
Soriano had been on a roll. On Tuesday, he hit his seventh homer of the season and fifth in the past four games. He homered in four straight games for the first time in his career, and needed a blast on Wednesday to tie the Cubs' all-time record of five consecutive games, shared by Sammy Sosa (June 3-8, 1998), Ryne Sandberg (Aug. 7-11, 1989) and Hack Wilson (July 3-7, 1928).
But he hit a single in the fourth and that was it.
Soriano and teammate Derrek Lee both have 297 career homers, and are in a race to see who will be the 126th Major League player to reach 300.
Piniella doesn't welcome the analysis the lineup gets. He remembered when Yankees manager Billy Martin drew names out of a hat to fill the card.
"I think [Martin] kept a couple names out to hit in the right spots," Piniella said. "The media and the fans get a little more involved from a thinking standpoint than is necessary, and that's the truth. When I played and came to the ballpark, wherever I was hitting, that's where I hit. It didn't mean much to me one way or the other."
Well, actually it did.
"If I hit seventh, that meant I wasn't hitting very well," he said.
Bottom line, if a player is doing well at the plate, he can hit anywhere, Piniella said.
"All those spots in the lineup are productive spots and RBI spots where you can do a little damage and drive in some runs," he said.
Zambrano gets in some work
PITTSBURGH -- Carlos Zambrano got a little action on Wednesday.
Zambrano had warmed up in two straight games, but had not pitched since last Friday. On Wednesday, he handled the seventh inning in relief of Cubs starter Ted Lilly, and gave up one hit and struck out one, facing three batters.
"I need to get him back in there to pitch," manager Lou Piniella said before the game of the Cubs' new setup man.
Zambrano, who switched from the rotation to the bullpen on April 22, now has struck out three and given up four hits in 3 2/3 innings in his past three outings. He's made four relief appearances so far.
The right-hander threw in the 'pen on Tuesday in case the Cubs rallied to tie. Instead, they lost to the Pirates, 3-2.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.