Super sub: Joyce steps up with Marte away

Outfielder homers, drives in three as Pirates top Braves in series opener

May 17th, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates knew on Sunday that they would be without one of their best players for a few games. Starling Marte, their .326-hitting cleanup man and Gold Glove left fielder, was headed to the paternity list.

With a deep and productive bench, the Pirates didn't need to look far for a capable replacement. Matt Joyce stepped into the lineup Monday night and went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in Pittsburgh's 8-5 win over the Braves at PNC Park.

Joyce started in right field, batting sixth, and did what he's done all season when he's heard his name called. Signed to a Minor League deal at the start of Spring Training, Joyce is hitting .372/.500/.767 with five home runs, 15 RBIs and more walks (11) than strikeouts (nine) in 33 games.

For most teams, he likely would be a starter -- at the very least, against right-handed pitchers. But for the Pirates, with their star-studded outfield trio, he's been one of the best backup plans in baseball.

"I think Joyce is very happy with the opportunity that he's getting. We're keeping him in play, moving him around," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Things are presenting themselves. He's taken advantage of every opportunity that he's gotten."

Making his sixth start of the season, Joyce lined an RBI single to right field in the first inning and ripped a two-run shot into the right-field seats in the seventh.

"It's exciting for me to get in there, get some at-bats, play a couple days in a row. Obviously our outfield, there's a tremendous amount of talent out there," Joyce said. "It's tough to crack that lineup. I'm excited and looking forward to these next couple days."

Joyce can also look back to the work he did this offseason, traveling to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball and working with a pair of independent hitting coaches to refine his swing. So far, it's all paid off.

"It means the world. It's tough to put it into words," Joyce said. "You kind of hope to see a light at the end of the tunnel. ... It's been really nice to have that success and kind of reassuring myself with the success that you're capable of doing those things. For me, it's tremendous."

Joyce was an All-Star with the Rays in 2011. David Freese was named World Series MVP that October and was the Angels' regular third baseman last season. Sean Rodriguez was once an everyday middle infielder. Catcher Chris Stewart started 97 games for the Yankees in 2013.

They are role players by definition now, but they haven't always been. And as Joyce proved again Monday night, they may still be capable of more.

"To have guys that have done significant things in the game, to have them in those spots, it's hard on them because they're used to playing more," Hurdle said. "It's just a strong bench. It makes your team stronger, obviously."