Kevin O’Sullivan has run out of adjectives for Michael Byrne. He’s said Byrne has the right kind of heartbeat and that he has no pulse. He finally settled on “remarkable” and the last year there isn’t a better descriptor for what Byrne has done.
A year ago he was Florida’s mid week starter. He made his first start against UCF (a win) and his second against FGCU (a loss). O’Sullivan wanted to try freshmen Tyler Dyson and Andrew Baker at the back end of the bullpen, not Byrne.
“I didn’t expect to be (closing games) a year ago, probably,” he said. “It’s definitely pretty cool. I like doing it and helping the team and that’s all I can ask for.”
On Friday night against Vanderbilt Byrne set the Florida career saves record with 26.
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning in the role either. Byrne got his first look at closing games during a home series against Tennessee.
“We tried some other guys. We tried Tyler Dyson, he wasn’t quite ready. We tried Andrew Baker earlier in the year but they were freshmen. It’s probably my fault. Those guys probably aren’t quite ready for that role,” O’Sullivan said. “I think Michael might have ended up getting two losses that weekend against Tennessee but it just looked right for our team.”
Sully’s recall is precise. Byrne entered Friday night’s game in the 9th inning with the score tied at six. He struck out the side in the ninth but gave up a run and took the loss in the 10th. O’Sullivan ran Byrne back out there Saturday in the same situation — top of the ninth, tie game. His second outing started in similar fashion, a 1-2-3 inning with a couple of strikeouts. He had three strikeouts in the 10th frame but Tennessee sandwiched in a single and RBI double between them giving Byrne his second loss in as many days.
Still, O’sullivan saw something he liked.
“He could do a lot of different things,” O’Sullivan said. “He can get you out on both sides of the plate. he can pitch backwards when he needs to. He holds runners. He’s deceptively a really good athlete. He gets off the mound really good and he’s smart.”
So O’Sullivan ran him back out there Sunday against Tennessee. He came into the game in the top of the 8th with two runners on and worked out of a jam to keep Florida’s 5-4 advantage intact. Three fly outs later the game was over and Byrne had his fifth save of the season and O’Sullivan had his closer.
14 saves later and Michael Byrne had the school record for saves in a season and Florida had its first National Championship.
It’s been a role that he’s really taken to and he changed our season last year to be honest with you,” O’Sullivan said of Byrne’s role on the 2017 team.
Byrne started his junior season back in the closer role and carried a streak of 26.2 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to last season. He’s not your typical closer.
“I don’t have the 98MPH fastball,” he says with a chuckle. “So just go out there, throw strikes and I have the best defense in the country behind me. That helps a lot.”
A lot of closers are animated. Anytime they’re pitching the game is on the line so the role lends itself to emotional, fiery guys.
“We had Austin Maddox in 2011-12. He was kinda that fiery guy. We’ve had some really good guys, Paco Rodriguez comes to mind,” said O’Sullivan. “Usually guys in that role are just so amped up. Guys get excited behind them.”
Not Byrne. He has the emotional range of a sociopath on the mound. His reaction to a home run is the same as securing the 27th out of a game. He’s level, never too high or too low.
“Michael is just a calming effect,” O’Sullivan said. “I think he likes it. Players feed off of it. Our players, I can speak for all the guys in the locker room they have a tremendous amount of confidence in him that he’s going to get the job done every time.”
Fast forward to Friday night.
Byrne was in his normal spot in the dugout; standing next to O’Sullivan and Brad Weitzel near the end of the dugout. The score was 7-1. On a normal night that means Byrne might as well have been in the clubhouse or in the stands with a bag of popcorn. He knew he had tied the school record, but Friday wasn’t going to be his night to break it.
Then Vanderbilt hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning and it was go time.
“I saw the ball in the air and was like, ‘yep, gotta go,’” he said. “I was like, ‘shoot.’ I definitely thought I had the night off but it’s ok. You gotta be ready at any point.”
Byrne got two outs on four pitches and finished off the save throwing just 21 with 17 strikes.
“That’s what he does. Comes in and gets two outs in the eighth on four pitches,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got no pulse. I can’t explain it, but it seems like we talk about it all the time after games. Michael was Michael.”
Byrne ended the game with a strikeout and JJ Schwarz congratulated him on his new record. As usual Byrne’s reaction was stoic. He went through the line giving teammates high fives as just one of the guys. “Good game, good game, good game.” Then the record was announced and the fans cheered, his teammates even louder and Byrne cracked a smile.
He walked over to do media with that same smile on his face. A year ago he was a midweek starter pitching against the likes of FGCU. Since then he’s closed out big games, College World Series games and etched his name into Florida’s record book, breaking a record that was older than him.
“It’s pretty remarkable especially the number of guys that have gone through here, especially Shaun Anderson and Mr. Pricher and a bunch of other guys that I’m sure I don’t know much about but they’ve been great,” he said. “It’s an honor for sure.”
Last year at this time Michael Byrne had just two saves…
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) March 31, 2018