GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There could be no clearer statement about the state of Florida’s bullpen than Sunday in the eighth inning as coach Kevin O’Sullivan called on sophomore Michael Byrne with runners on second and third and no outs.
Byrne had already pitched the first two games of the series with Tennessee, taking the loss in both extra-innings defeats, but with the game on the line again O’Sullivan had no doubt who he wanted on the mound.
And Byrne rewarded that confidence by working out of the jam without allowing a run to protect a tenuous 5-4 lead that would ultimately serve as the final score in a much-needed win.
“Obviously it’s not ideal using him three days in a row, but at this stage this is an important game. This is a two-game swing from 5-7 or 6-6 (in the SEC),” O’Sullivan said. “Michael Byrne’s kind of evolved into a guy we trust, and we’re playing so many one-run games.”
Byrne, who is 1-4 with a 2.37 ERA and a sharp 45-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 38 innings, has been a versatile option for the Gators while serving as both a mid-week starter and weekend reliever and now settling in as the clear preferred late-inning option.
Earlier in the season it looked like Florida (21-11, 6-6 SEC) was grooming flame-throwing freshman Tyler Dyson for the closer role, but O’Sullivan has seen something in Byrne that gives him trust and confidence in those high-leverage situations.
“It’s just he’s older, he’s more experienced. Maybe I got ahead of myself with Tyler Dyson because he’s got such a good arm. The fact of the matter is he’s only been pitching for a couple of years,” O’Sullivan said. “Michael’s a little more seasoned and fields his position — obviously he made a great play there in the eighth inning. If I didn’t trust Tyler I wouldn’t be starting him on Tuesday. I do trust him. We’re just trying to get wins right now.
“I wish the roles were a bit more solidified, but the fact of the matter is we’ve got a bunch of freshmen in the bullpen and when we have to go to the bullpen in the sixth inning we’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t been through this before. That’s kind of why we’ve been having some issues there.”
Byrne was masterful Sunday in closing out that win. After taking over with Vols on second and third and no outs in the eighth inning of that one-run game, he got Will Heflin out on a blooper to shallow center thanks to a highlight-reel over-the-shoulder catch by shortstop Dalton Guthrie. Byrne then struck out Max Bartlett, pitched around Jeff Moberg for a walk to load the bases and ultimately got Justin Ammons out on a comebacker to the mound on a 3-2 pitch.
He followed with a perfect ninth inning to earn his 5th save.
Byrne had taken the loss Friday in a 7-6 extra-innings defeat, giving up the decisive run during a 2-inning relief stint in which he allowed 2 hits, 2 walks and struck out 4.
In the Gators’ 3-2 10-innings loss Saturday, Byrne again came in for 2 innings of relief, giving up 2 hits and 1 run with 5 strikeouts while taking the loss.
O’Sullivan didn’t feel he deserved either blemish, though.
“I don’t see him as getting two losses, to be honest with you,” he said. “We didn’t get a great start on Friday, and I think yesterday we had two base-running mistakes. I don’t put that on him at all. He’s throwing the ball across the plate, he’s not walking people. I think he pitched great this weekend. It’s unfortunate he’s got Ls next to his name, but it wasn’t because of him. It wasn’t because of him at all.”
Guthrie back at SS
Prior to this weekend, Guthrie had been relegated to designated hitter duties since March 17 due to unspecified soreness in his throwing arm.
He was able to return to his post at shortstop for the three-game series with Tennessee, though, and made a significant impact with that over-the-shoulder grab in the eighth inning Sunday. O’Sullivan said it saved the game for the Gators and was a reminder just how valuable Guthrie is in the field.
Guthrie struggled at the plate while going 2-for-13 with a run and an RBI in the series, but he was happy nonetheless to be back at shortstop.
“It was different DHing. I’ve never really done that, especially when you’re not swinging well, you find some way to contribute (on defense). So any way I can contribute … it gives you more ways to help the team so it was nice,” he said.
He had a special sleeve over his throwing arm, but he didn’t offer any further specifics as to what’s been ailing him.
“It’s just a little tender. It’s getting better, so it’s perfectly fine to play with now. So I’m all right,” he said.
No margin for error
After losing two out of three games to a Vols team that sits last in the division, Florida enters the week right in the middle of the pack in the SEC.
At 6-6, the Gators are still just two games behind Kentucky for the top spot in the east standings and two games behind the top spot in the conference overall for that matter.
“Let’s face it, we’re 6-6 in the league and four of our six loss are by one run,” O’Sullivan said. “We just don’t have a whole lot of margin for error. We’re going to have to do the little things right.”
Said Guthrie: “It’s always tough. The SEC, it’s not easy. We’ve had our struggles early on, and hopefully it’s setting us up to play better at the end of the year.”
After going 8-for-14 at the plate against Tennessee with 3 runs and 2 RBIs, Ryan Larson leads the Gators with a .317 batting average while fellow outfielder Nelson Maldonado (.309) is the only other Florida hitter batting at least .300. The team average sits at .245, which ranks 245th nationally.
Sophomore right-hander Brady Singer, meanwhile, ranks 33rd nationally with a 1.60 ERA through eight starts.
The week ahead
Florida drops to No. 12 in the D1Baseball.com national rankings and faces a daunting slate this week, although neither opponent is currently in that top-25 poll.
The Gators travel to Florida State (21-13, 7-8 ACC) on Tuesday for the finale of the teams’ three-game season series. They beat the Seminoles 1-0 on March 14 in Gainesville and won 4-1 on March 28 in Jacksonville.
Florida then travels to Vanderbilt (21-12, 6-6 SEC) for a three-game series in Nashville starting Thursday.
The Gators will start Dyson (1-0, 3.55 ERA), the freshman righty, in that game Tuesday and stick with their normal weekend rotation against the Commodores.