OMAHA, Neb. — Once again Monday night, Florida fans let out a sigh of relief.
Nail-biters have become commonplace this season for the Gators, who picked up their 20th one-run victory of the season Monday in Game 1 of the College World Series finals against LSU.
No other program across the nation has had more than 14 such victories this year. Yes, there’s been a lot of close calls for Florida, but there’s been little to worry about when Michael Byrne strolls out of the bullpen to provide the finishing touches.
Byrne followed starter Brady Singer’s superb 7+ innings of work with the final six outs to close out a 4-3 victory against the Tigers. He allowed just one hit, which allowed an inherited runner to score in the seventh, but that was all en route to save No. 19 on the season — a nation-high mark.
That finished off Florida’s first-ever CWS finals win and trims the Gators’ magic number for its elusive first-ever national title to one.
“Michael Byrne did what Michael Byrne always does. [He] throws strikes, change speeds… Once again, we do just enough to stay ahead,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said postgame Monday.
Byrne has been nearly spotless this postseason, throwing 20.2 innings in the NCAA tournament, allowing just three runs. He’s averaged more than two innings per outing during this stretch and is 3-for-3 in save opportunities in CWS play.
Those are veteran's numbers in the postseason. But the fact is, Byrne is only a sophomore, and he was only moved into the closer’s role in early April.
“It definitely wasn’t expected, being the closer. I was more of a middle inning guy, eat up innings,” Byrne said at Sunday’s media day. “But the closer’s role is fitting pretty nicely. We’re winning and we’re here. So I’m happy with it, and hopefully the team’s happy with me being the closer.”
Byrne started the year as an early relief option and spot starter, after posting a 3.94 ERA in 13 relief outings his freshman year. As the Gators went through a revolving door at closer early on, giving save opportunities to Frank Rubio and Tyler Dyson with mixed results, Byrne got his first shot at a permanent role in an April series against Tennessee.
Byrne pitched the final two innings against the Vols in each of the first two games of the series, allowing a run in each appearance. He was charged with both losses in the 10th inning. But O’Sullivan was impressed.
In another tight game the next day, Byrne marched back out and tossed another two innings, this time scoreless, with just one walk on his ledger. It marked his fifth save of the year, and his first as a full-time closer.Since that point, Byrne hasn’t relinquished the closer’s role, pitching to 1.70 ERA in 74.1 innings (37 appearances). His 19 saves obliterate the previous single-season program record of 13.
O'Sullivan credited Byrne's rise to stardom and the rest of the bullpen formidifying down the stretch as one of the biggest differences in Florida's postseason run.
“We needed to figure out our bullpen,” O’Sullivan said. “And Michael Byrne has turned out to be outstanding at the end.”
Byrne doesn’t have the typical attributes usually associated with a shutdown closer. He doesn’t have a high 90s fastball nor does he show a lot of emotion on the mound, as you’ll see across the other dugout in electric LSU closer Zack Hess.
Instead, the Orlando native pitches to contact with his 88-92 mile per hour fastball that he uses to paint the corners with consistency. Byrne only has 15 walks this year.
As for his composure, Byrne said it’s easy for him to stay focused and calm on the mound. You won’t see him pump his fist after a big strikeout nor show any frustration after a walk. Even at the CWS stage, he’s as cool as they come.
“I just try not to make the moment any bigger than it needs to be,” Byrne said about his approach. “I try to stay as calm as I can. That’s just who I am, I don’t get too hyped for many things. I’m just more mellow and whatever happens, happens.”
Florida now has two shots at clinching the 2017 CWS title, starting with Game 2 on Tuesday night. One-run game or not, Byrne will be ready to put the finishing touches on a breakthrough year and join the Gators' history books.