GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Rita Byrne sat in her usual royal blue chairback at McKethan Stadium — Section D, Row 5, Seat 13 — as her son Michael pitched inning after inning on Saturday night.
It’s directly behind home plate, the perfect spot to watch Michael attempt to close out this five-hour marathon that was No. 3 national seed Florida’s NCAA Regional game against the University of South Florida.
As each inning passed and the game drifted further into the night — the ninth inning becoming the 10th then the 11th and into the 12th — Rita could feel her pulse rising. Once again, a Florida baseball game is going to come down her son holding the opponent scoreless long enough for the offense to drive in a run.
“I was starting to think I needed to go down and do some yoga breathing,” Rita Byrne said a day later.
Michael Byrne, on the other hand, remained calm on the mound that Saturday night, just like he has all season. He’s faced the pressure of close games before. Why should this one be any different?
Byrne mowed down batter after batter with ease, allowing the offense every opportunity to crack the game open. Five innings later, he walked off the mound and celebrated with his teammates. Florida defeated USF 5-1 in 12 innings thanks to a late four-run rally.
By the time the regional ended two days later, Byrne had tossed a team-high 10 innings and 138 pitches without giving up a run.
“Michael is the kind of kid that didn’t want to give it up,” his mom said.
Byrne, a sophomore and a walk-on for the Florida baseball team, has had that consistency on the mound all year as the Gators’ closer. He’s already set Florida’s single-season record for saves with 16 and has a team-best 1.55 ERA.
He’s a top-five finalist for the Stopper of the Year Award, given annually to the best closer in college baseball, and was named a third-team All-American by Baseball America. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his teammates alike have said he is their most valuable player this year.
“It’s been a remarkable season,” O’Sullivan said.
Now, Byrne will see if he can continue that remarkable season this weekend when the Gators (45-17) host Wake Forest (42-18) for the NCAA Super Regionals. The best-of-three series starts Saturday at 3 p.m. With two more home wins, the Gators will be heading back to the College World Series for the third straight year and keep their national championship hopes alive.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Byrne said. “To go to Omaha and beyond and win it all.”
‘He understands who he is’
O’Sullivan was asked Thursday how he would have responded if told before the season that Byrne would become the lights-out, season-saving closer that he evolved into this season.
“I would not have agreed with you at that point,” O’Sullivan said. “I really wouldn’t have.”
If told the same thing two years ago, Byrne probably wouldn’t have believed it either. He was having second thoughts about even joining the Gators.
He wasn’t on scholarship and he wasn’t the hardest-throwing pitcher. On top of that, Byrne was getting ready to play on a team historically known for quality pitching.
“I don’t think he felt confident enough that he could maybe compete,” Rita Byrne said. “My husband basically said ‘Florida is the SEC. That is the best of the best. You have to go where you’re going to be challenged.’”
Any hesitations Byrne had went away once he stepped on campus.
“It was just the fact that I was a walk-on. It felt weird. I didn’t know what that meant,” Byrne said. “I’m glad I came here. It turned out great. It’s been a great opportunity so far.”
Chuck Schall, Byrne’s coach for two years at Olympia High School, also heard the criticisms about his star pitcher.
“Mike probably should have gone to Division II.” “He won’t be able to pitch at Florida.” “He doesn’t have the velocity the staff has.”
Schall knew those criticisms would only drive Byrne to prove critics wrong.
“The kid is just a very determined young man,” Schall said. “He’s competitive. And he’s had a lot of success. Success leads to success. … I’m glad to see he’s gotten that chance.”
One of those criticisms is a fair point. Byrne doesn’t have the velocity that most top college pitchers have. His fastball barely touched 88 mph on the radar gun when he arrived in Gainesville.
Byrne made up for that with his command, his ability to throw every pitch in his arsenal for strikes — from his change-up to his slider to his four-seam fastball.
It’s a stark contrast from most of the highly-touted recruits coming out of high school.
“He understands who he is,” O’Sullivan said. “He pitches beyond his years.”
His first year, though, Byrne barely made it out of the bullpen. He threw just 16 total innings in 13 appearances last season. Outside of the SEC Tournament championship against Texas A&M, Byrne only came in to pitch in games that were essentially already decided. There was no chance to feel the pressure of carrying his team. There was no opportunity to truly say he made a difference.
In the meantime, he learned from the talented crop of pitchers at his disposal. He leaned on fellow bullpen guys Dane Dunning and Shaun Anderson, who both had to make the transition from starter to relief pitcher.
Their overarching piece of advice to the walk-on freshman: Stay the course and keep working.
“Anything can happen,” Byrne said.
So Byrne waited his turn. He watched Logan Shore, A.J. Puk and Alex Faedo dominate as the weekend rotation. He watched Dunning, a first-round pick, emerge as Florida’s midweek starter. He watched Anderson tie the school’s single-season saves record.
“I wanted a bigger part this year,” Byrne said.
O’Sullivan wanted that, too. He needed it considering the Gators were replacing six of their top pitchers with a crop of wide-eyed — albeit talented — freshmen.
“We’re going to use you a lot next year,” O’Sullivan told him, “so get yourself ready.”
O’Sullivan first made Byrne his midweek starter while hoping a freshman or two would step up in the back end. As the Gators approached SEC play, that bullpen filled with young talent couldn’t live up to the expectations.
So there Byrne went, moving from starter to closer. The rest is history.
“Some of the freshmen were just not quite ready,” O’Sullivan said. “We had a decision to make because we were playing so many one-run games. Michael throws strikes and he’s a good athlete.
“He just gave us the best chance to win at the end of the ball game.”
‘Proud as punch’
Michael Byrne always has one request for his mom when she talks to anyone about him: Please be humble.
That’s a tough task for the proud Rita Byrne, the mom with dozens of customized shirts that she wears to each of his games.
“Michael is my first child, my only child,” she said. “He’s a tough kid. He takes better instruction from coaches than he does me, but he’s still lovable. He comes up and he gives me hugs. He treats me like a little teddy bear. He’s a dream.”
And she knows he’s a good baseball player, too.
He started with coach pitch at 6 years old and began travel ball at 7. When he wasn’t at school or spending time with friends, he was watching SportsCenter or playing catch in the front yard with mom. Soon enough, his dad had to start taking over those games of catch because mom couldn’t handle the pitches.
By the time Byrne started high school, he was consistently throwing in the mid 80s.
Byrne’s success smoothly transitioned to his three years of varsity baseball at Olympia High School in Orlando. Byrne went 29-2, threw a pair of no-hitters and helped Olympia crack into the USA Today’s top-25 national rankings.
Despite the success, Byrne still had his reserved demeanor in high school. He was the first to the field, did his job and made sure he put his team in the best position to win. Any success that he had simply followed suit.
“He ended up being a coach’s dream, really,” Schall said. “Every time he took the mound, he gave you all he had. He was very consistent. He was a guy I could always count on to perform well.”
O’Sullivan took notice of Byrne’s resiliency and made sure Byrne knew he had a place in the Florida baseball program.
It was hard for mom to remain humble after that.
“I’m just proud as punch,” Rita Byrne said. “He’s a very blessed boy to have the talent and to be able to use it. He’s a good kid.”
‘You’re only as good as your last outing’
It finally clicked for Byrne after the Tennessee series.
Florida lost the first two games against the Volunteers in extra innings during that fourth week of conference play. Byrne, as Florida’s last pitcher on the mound, drew both losses.
Even though he kept his calm and stoic demeanor, the losses ate at him.
“People just say ‘Oh, he has ice water in his veins,’” his mom said. “Well, he has a heart, too. He took those losses so hard. We told him, ‘Flush it. It’s baseball. It’s only Tennessee.’”
O’Sullivan’s confidence in Byrne hadn’t wavered, though. Not in the slightest.
So in the third game of the series, the coach brought his closer in once again.
The situation: Florida leading 5-4 in the eighth, runners on second and third, no outs.
Byrne got the first batter he faces to fly out to shortstop. One down. Next up, a three-pitch strikeout. Two down. Byrne walked the third batter to load the bases.
And then, facing a full count, Byrne got Tennessee’s Justin Ammons to rip a ground ball that hopped straight back over the pitcher’s mound. Byrne jumped to grab the ball before turning and firing to first base for the inning-ending out. He retired the side in the ninth to earn the save, just his fourth of the year.
“My husband’s favorite phrase is ‘You’re only as good as your last outing,’” Rita Byrne said. “I think Michael keeps that in his mind. Every time is a new day.”
And since those two losses to Tennessee, Byrne’s outings have been as good as they possibly could be. The numbers: 17 appearances, 27 2/3 innings pitched, 1 earned run allowed and 30 strikeouts to 6 walks.
Oh, and he has a 2-0 record with 12 saves. He was on the bottom of the dogpile when the Gators clinched a share of the SEC regular-season championship and he played a role in all three of Florida’s wins in the NCAA Regionals last week.
Exactly what Florida needs as it makes a final push to return to the College World Series.
“He believes in himself a little more,” Faedo said. “Now, you’re seeing the best of Michael Byrne.”