GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It looked like Florida reliever Michael Byrne was ready to celebrate a little too early in the eighth inning Sunday.
After inheriting runners on second and third with no outs in a 1-run game, he watched Gators shortstop Dalton Guthrie make a sliding, over-the-shoulder grab on a blooper to shallow center field and he then followed with a big strikeout before starting to walk toward the dugout.
There was still one out to get, though, and he’d maximize the tension further with a walk to load the bases and a full count to Tennessee’s Justin Ammons.
After dropping the first two games of the series to Tennessee in extra innings, nothing was going to come easy for the Gators on Sunday, but Byrne delivered again. He snagged Ammons’ comebacker to the mound, tossed to first for the third out and finally got to walk to the dugout with cheers, having protected that narrow Florida lead.
The Gators held on from there, salvaging what they could while closing out a 5-4 win in the finale at McKethan Stadium.
“I was just pumped. I don’t even know what was going through my head. I was just wanting to get back on the mound and get that third out,” Byrne said, claiming he didn’t lose track of the outs. “… I wanted that strikeout so bad, and I knew I had to get the next guy. I pitched around that kid and got the lefty out.”
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) April 9, 2017
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) April 9, 2017
Byrne came back out for a perfect ninth inning to earn the save as No. 7 Florida (21-11, 6-6 SEC) evened its conference record to avoid a sweep against the last-place team in the division.
Interestingly, Byrne had received the loss out of the bullpen in each of the two extra-innings losses to open the series. He was happy to get a chance to end the weekend on a high note, both personally and for the team.
“Getting the loss on Friday on Saturday wasn’t fun, but yeah, we needed this one and it was good to get one out of the three,” he said.
Tennessee dropped to 17-12, 3-9 with the loss.
Meanwhile, the Gators needed this one to get back on track before a daunting week that starts with a road trip Tuesday to No. 22 Florida State and continues Thursday-Saturday in Nashville, Fla., against Vanderbilt.
Florida loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the second and managed to squeeze one run out of that opportunity on a Deacon Liput RBI fielder’s choice groundout.
The Gators scored again in the third after singles from JJ Schwarz and Ryan Larson and a wild pitch that plated Schwarz.
They loaded the bases again in the fourth when Christian Hicks led off with a single, Nick Horvath was hit by a pitch and Liput singled to center. Guthrie drew a walk to score the first run of the inning, Schwarz plated another on a sac fly to right and Mike Rivera followed with an RBI single through the right side to make it a 5-0 game.
All the while, starting pitcher Jackson Kowar had cruised through 5 innings, allowing only 2 hits to that point.
But Tennessee mounted its comeback in the sixth with a leadoff bunt single from Jordan Rodgers and subsequent hits from Benito Santiago and Andre Lipcius to load the bases. Kowar left the game at that point and watched all three inherited runners score.
The Vols tacked on another run in the eighth before Byrne came in to close it out.
As for that comebacker to the mound, he quipped: “I always get made fun of because I’m not an athlete, they think, but they’re wrong.”
Nelson Maldonado (2-for-3, 1 run) and Hicks (2-for-4, 1 run) led the offensive attack while Liput (1-for-3), Guthrie (0-for-4), Schwarz (1-for-4) and Rivera (1-for-3) each had an RBI.
Guthrie made the biggest play in the game, though, on that over-the-shoulder grab in shallow center to protect that 1-run lead in the eighth before Byrne did the rest.
“I don’t know. I’m still wondering,” he said afterward of how he came up with that catch. “I kind of just turned around and I looked back up at some point and it was there. I was like, ‘Oh, thank goodness.'”
Said Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan: “He saved the game, to be quite honest with you. I think the teaching moment is this, I think he went 0-for-4 at the plate tonight but saved the game with his glove. He’s a really good player. He understands he plays both sides of the ball, and you won’t see a better play by a shortstop I don’t think at any level. If that ball drops in we’re in trouble, but he obviously made a great play.”