This year was going to be a little more difficult to find a closer because of all the new faces in the bullpen. The Gators lost six pitchers to the Major League Baseball Draft after last season. Four of those came from the bullpen.
Several freshmen have been thrown into the mix because they absolutely had to be in the mix. Even with his 16 innings of work over 13 games last year, Byrne was one of the more experienced arms on the staff at the beginning of the season.
He’s had some down moments, but many more positive. O’Sullivan found himself Wednesday trying to remember when Byrne finally pushed ahead of the pack to really take the role of closer.
“To be honest with you I didn’t know,” he said about Byrne being the guy. “I tried to think back of when it was; I think he just saved a couple games earlier in the year. We had some younger guys that just weren’t quite ready to fulfill that role and it’s like moving (Ryan) Larson to the cleanup spot. I never imagined him hitting in the cleanup spot but he got hot, you kinda move him in and you stay with your hot hand as long as they’re playing well.
“Michael’s been kind of in the same situation. He’s kind of closed out a couple tough games and he’s gotta little bit of veteran experience to him. He’s poised, he throws strikes and if you beat him you beat him. I think he had two of the losses against Tennessee I believe, but to be honest with you I thought he threw the ball great. We kinda stuck with him.
“Could it change? I mean, (freshman) Garrett Milchin’s been used as the set up but I could see him extending his role, especially Sundays if Jackson (Kowar is) gonna go five or six innings I could certainly see Milchin going two or three innings and extending him a little more because I do see him as a starter down the road. I would not hesitate to start him in an important game down the stretch here.”
O’Sullivan was in the same position last year before Shaun Anderson stepped to the lead in the closing role and in turn played well enough to be drafted in the third round of the MLB Draft.
Similarities between how Michael Byrne and Shaun Anderson found the closer role?
“(The situation is similar) and they’re obviously different,” he said of the comparison. “Shaun was a little bit bigger and threw harder but both guys threw strikes. You just kind of get to a point, we’ve got a two-run lead on Saturday and, ‘ball goes to Byrne’ there’s no hesitation there to leave Milchin out there even though I trust him to finish the game. I think Michael at this point has earned the opportunity to close out games.”
“Hopefully it continues. That’s been one of the biggest question marks we had going into the season, who’s going to be the guy at the end? Michael was not at the top of that list just because I think in a closing role, prototypically, you’re looking for a guy that’s’ 92-94, with a plus breaker, overpowering stuff. He’s just done it a little differently. He’s very effective. Like I said, if he gets beat it’s not going to be because of himself, it’s not gonna be because of walks. It’s gonna be because the other team is getting hits and earning it. I can live with that.”
Florida baseball aficionados have grown accustomed to pitchers throwing in the 90’s, O’Sullivan as mentioned prefers it, but Byrne does what he needs to do more times than not.
“He pitches at 88-to-91 but it’s located and he’s both sides of the plate,” O’Sullivan said. “He can do a lot of different things with his breaking ball. He can backdoor it, he can back foot it to lefties, he can front door it to right handers, he can throw it 4-6 inches off the plate to put somebody away. He’s got a changeup as well.
“He’s really a starter that’s going one inning. I think the other day, closing the game out against South Carolina was certainly a big game for him. He had to go through the middle of the order. He had two lefties back-to-back with Tolbert and Cortes. Tolbert gets on with a two-strike hit and we all know how good of a hitter Cortes is and he gets him to hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Next thing you know the game’s over. I think for him that was probably a big step in the right direction.”
Byrne is a shining example of what it means to get that little bit of experience as a freshman. With a roster loaded with rookie arms, O’Sullivan expects those guys to take the same step forward next year.
“His attitude’s always been good,” he said of Byrne. “I think his body is in a little better shape but it just comes down to experience. We’re going to sit here next year and we’re going to be talking about Tyler Dyson and Nate Brown and a couple of these other freshmen and ‘what’s the difference?’ That’s why when we play these midweek games we keep running out Nate Brown, we keep throwing Tyler Dyson out there because they’re our future and they have really good arms. Sometimes it takes kids a little bit longer. I mean it took Dane Dunning until his junior year to really shine. Now look at him. He’s in pro ball and he’s excelling. Shaun Anderson same thing, it took him a couple years. Some guys figure it out sooner, some figure it out later but the good ones always figure it out. Next year I would not be surprised talking about these other freshmen who have good arms that just finally figure it out.”