A tale of two All-American Gator arms

As the college baseball season winds down and further into Tournament play we also start hearing about post season awards in the sport. On Thursday, Michael Byrne and Alex Faedo both earned Baseball America All-American honors. One was almost expected before the season started and one has been a pleasant surprise as the season progressed.

Alex Faedo came into the season as an All-American candidate. Going 13-3 as the starter on Sundays a year ago, Faedo was moved to Fridays where it meant he would be facing the ace of other staffs and also his offense would also have to face those ace pitchers. As well as he pitched, he was going to have to step up his game like Logan Shore as the Friday starter before him. 

It was an easy no-brainer to move him to Fridays for Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan who lost six pitchers including Shore to the Major League Baseball draft last year. O’Sullivan had complete confidence in his junior right hander and has known that Faedo was a special talent since he saw him before his senior year of high school ball.

I knew he was going to be good,” O’Sullivan said Thursday in preparation for the Super Regional matchup with Wake Forest that starts Saturday. “I saw him the summer going into his senior year. He was outstanding. I think he did something to his foot or something during his senior year and kind of slowed him down a little bit. I knew he was going to be good. That’s why he pitched on the weekend last year. I knew it was just a matter of time.

Faedo (7-2, 2.70 ERA) has played like an All-American, but feels like he is throwing as well as he ever has at this time.

“Lately I’ve been throwing pretty (well),” he said. “I think my arm is starting to feel a little better. Usually at the end of the year you get a little tired, but I feel pretty good right now. Credit to (trainer and strength coach) John (Mechilini) and Paul (Chandler) for getting us ready for the season.”

O’Sullivan was excited with the way Faedo pitched in the Regional over the weekend. In a game where there was a 38 minute delay in the second inning, Faedo pitched on both sides of the lightning delay and came away pretty much unscathed against a very good hitting South Florida team.

“He just always seems to rise to the occasion,” O’Sullivan said of Faedo. “The last time out was the best he pitched all year long. He is 94-96, and pitched 94-95, his slider was 87-88 and on point on both sides of the plate. His changeup was the best it’s been since he’s been here. He just has that ability.”

Faedo was asked to come in for game two of the Regional, likely because that was the going to be the matchup with the better team. He will be back to his series opener role this week with the Demon Deacons coming to town. He understands that he has to set the tone for the series with the way he starts it off.

“Just starting the series off strong,” he said when asked what his goal is going to the mound every week. “I feel like if I don’t put a great effort in the first game of a series I can tell the series isn’t going the way we wanted. Whenever I give our team a chance to win the first game then usually we win the series or sweep. That’s something that Shore did constantly and I didn’t realize it until I was put into that situation.”

The goal every game is to throw well enough that he can stay on the mound as long as possible. The fewer arms this team has to use the better because of the lack of consistency in some of the other pitchers.

“Pitching deeper into the games I think,” he said of what he wants to do every time out. “Just trying to hand the ball off to Byrne, I’m just trying to have me and Byrne pitch.

Faedo is an aggressive pitcher. He looks at every pitch like the next strike on any batter. That is what got him the recent All-American acknowledgment, but says he is just doing his job.

“It was a nice accomplishment,” he said. “I was glad I got to see Byrne’s name on there. We’re throwing partners so I’m glad he got a little recognition there. I guess that means we’re doing our job for the team, putting our best effort out there and helping the team win.

The surprise of the staff…

There are so many things that just don’t compute about Michael Byrne. He came to Florida as a walk-on pitcher, a place under O’Sullivan that rakes in the best arms in the country who want to play for probably the best pitching program in college baseball.

He isn’t particularly big standing 6-foot-2 and he doesn’t throw exceptionally hard for a pitcher under O’Sullivan’s watch (right around 90). But, there is just something about the guy and he just gets it done.

“He’s always been a good pitcher,” Faedo said of his teammate. “Jon used to tell me when Byrne was still in high school how good Byrne was, how he could locate everything and how he was going to help our team a lot. I think Byrne keeps going out there and getting a lot of confidence and it’s really helping him. I think now he believes in himself a little more and now you guys are seeing the best of Michael Byrne.”

Photo by Danny Parker

Byrne wasn’t exactly sure of himself and the role he is currently in as the guy that comes in and saves games. He’s saved 16 this season a Gator record that continues to climb, but early on he was just hoping for a chance to pitch at all on the weekend. Now he’s been on the mound more times (32) than any pitcher and the confidence that the staff has in him is off the charts.

Byrne couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone for him and his team this season.

“I thought my role would be like a mid-week starter and then develop into an SEC role out of the bullpen,” he said Thursday. “It’s worked out and we’re in the Super Regionals now, so it’s exciting.”

O’Sullivan hasn’t been surprised by the way Byrne his pitched, but more so in the role that he has embraced and done so well with. Like Byrne, he considered the young ma a mid-week starter and maybe an extra starter during a long tournament series if needed. To be the team’s closer and do as well as he has, well that is surprising.

“I would not have agreed with you at that point,” O’Sullivan said when asked if someone told him in the preseason Byrne would fill the role he has to this point. “We tried him as our mid-week starter. We knew that our pen was going to be a little bit light going into the season. We knew our strength was going to be our starting pitching. In the middle of March against Florida State we had the three freshman play and had the shutout. We thought we were going in the right direction with some of these younger guys. Then we started SEC play and some of the freshmen were just not quite ready.

“We had a decision to make with so many one-run games. Mike throws strikes. He’s a good athlete and he just gave us the best chance to win at the end of the ballgame. He’s got three pitches. Now they have this thing called spin rate on the ball, but there is something these guys that are hitting that don’t pick up. Between the starters and him, he’s probably been our MVP.”

It hasn’t all been roses for Byrne. After a great start that saw him wind up in the closer role, he lost the first two games of the Tennessee series in late innings. O’Sullivan would not be deterred in his confidence in the young man, so when the time came, he rolled him out for game three and Byrne did what Byrne does.

“I didn’t think he threw poorly,” said O’Sullivan who is much more interested in the intricacies of the game than any one or two outcomes. “I just think we got beat. That’s why I ran him out there again. I had the feeling that if you were going to beat him you were going to have to put some good swings on the ball. I think it was important for him to understand at that point, even though he had the first two losses, that I had trust in him.”

Like Faedo, Byrne was thrown into a tough situation this past weekend. In the same game with USF that Faedo had to throw in between a lightning break, Byrne was called on to close in the seventh inning. Usually not an issue to go three innings, the game went 12 and he pitched six innings and 82 pitches.

That isn’t really an issue either, as he started a few games earlier in the year and that was a goal at that point. The issue was coming back a couple of days later in the Regional clinching game and throwing another 31 pitches.

It goes against what O’Sullivan normally believes in, but Byrne’s throwing style allows him to be a bit different.

“We try to be very cautious about pitch counts and we got into a situation where his arm does bounce back very well,” Sully said. “We’ll manage him a lot this week and won’t pick up a ball and get a full 6-7 days of rest.”

It just adds more to Byrne’s amazing story in this 2017 season. And while the closer role may not have been expected, O’Sullivan knew this would be a big year for the super sophomore.

“I remember leaving the SEC tournament last year and I was talking to Kyle Peterson (ESPN analyst) and he actually called it and said, ‘I think the guy that is going to surprise everybody next year is Michael Byrne’. And I said ‘I agree with you’.”

It’s kind of a neat story. Next year who knows, if he’s starting or closing. He could fill a lot of different roles. The way he’s closing games this year I will hard pressed to get him out of that role.

“It’s not classic stuff. But his fastball is good enough, freshman year he was probably 86-88. Now he touches 92 and he pitches 89-91, so the fast ball is good enough. But the slider and change… he’s like a starter that gets three outs at the end of the game. You really can’t sit on one pitch. Most closers are all fast ball or all spin. He’s got the ability to move the ball around and do a lot of different things. It is maybe a little less conventional, but obviously it works.”

Byrne is just soaking it in, but the modest mound master is quick to praise his teammates for getting him to this spot.

“It’s definitely great regarding being the guy closing the games out and have all of your teammates come on to the field and congratulate you,” Byrne said. “It’s been great so far.

“(The All-American recognition) is an awesome honor, but I have to thank the guys behind me for all they’ve done as well as the three catchers we have, Mike (Rivera), J.J. (Schwarz), and Mark (Kolozsvary). Throughout the whole year, they’ve been great for me.”

 


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