University of Florida

This unsung junior pitcher could end up being the Florida Gators’ real ace

Closer Michael Byrne is leading the Gators in ERA over a significant sample size and coach Kevin O’Sullivan, above, is happy to have him.
Closer Michael Byrne is leading the Gators in ERA over a significant sample size and coach Kevin O’Sullivan, above, is happy to have him. AP

The pitch might have been breaking toward the ground, but Michael Byrne will tell you he should have caught it anyway.

“It just skipped off the paint on home plate,” Florida’s closer said, “and just got me.”

His error came before Sunday’s game against Arkansas started. He was crouched behind home plate to catch the ceremonial first pitch when the miscue happened. But luckily for Byrne, when the real game started, he was his usual sharp self.

Bryne’s 3. 2/3 innings pitched were a season high, and they helped No. 2 UF (21-5, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) take its weekend series against No. 4 Arkansas (17-7, 4-2 SEC). The win secured the comeback series win after the Gators lost Friday’s opener.

“We probably needed to be tested that way, to be honest with you,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m obviously very pleased and proud of the way we played.”

The tests will keep coming this week when the Gators play No. 7 Florida State on Tuesday in Jacksonville and No. 8 Vanderbilt in a three-game home series this weekend. Byrne could be a serious asset against both teams.

The junior right hander entered Sunday without allowing a run in 16.2 innings pitched this season. He finally faltered against the Razorbacks, which broke his scoreless inning streak dating back to last season at 26.2 frames. But he still finished the game and shut down a quality team in a high-pressure situation, as he’s done all season.

For a team that entered the season with a pair of potential top-10 pitching prospects in starters Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, it’s Byrne who boasts the team’s lowest ERA at 0.44. It’s Byrne who creates peace for his teammates with his presence alone.

“We’re relaxed,” outfielder Nelson Maldonado said about him entering games. “Byrne is gonna do what Byrne does.”

O’Sullivan agrees, which is why he wasn’t afraid to turn to his closer in Sunday’s sixth inning. He hadn’t pitched in a week, after all, so his arm was plenty fresh. It was just about delivering, which Byrne did to pick up his first win of the season.

“Michael Byrne is just special,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s just got a different temperament.”

Third baseman Jonathan India, meanwhile, continued his hot hitting over the weekend. The American Heritage product’s batting average stands at .429 and his 22 RBIs are second only to outfielder Wil Dalton’s 23.

SWIMMING

Decorated Olympian and senior Florida swimmer Caeleb Dressel ended his Florida career memorably over the weekend.

Dressel, a two-time gold medalist, maneuvered his body in a way that propelled him to the fastest 100-meter freestyle time — 39.90 seconds — in history. Dressel also swelled his All-American total to a program-record 28 and won the Swimmer of the Year Award, closing the book on one of the most accomplished athletes to ever compete at Florida.

GYMNASTICS

She blew it.

Well, not just her, but Florida senior All-American Alex McMurtry certainly knows she contributed to the Gators’ third-place finish in this weekend’s SEC Tournament.

“It is hard to be one of the routines that had a mistake, but it is a learning lesson,” McMurtry said in a release. “I’ll get back into the gym and train harder.”

McMurtry fell during her floor exercise and was scored accordingly, and her team was unable to crawl out from that hole. It wasn’t what they envisioned when they embarked on the season, nor was competing in the meet without standout Kennedy Baker, who is out for the year with a torn Achilles. But they still have a chance to rectify everything.

UF will travel to University Park, Pennsylvania, on April 7 to compete in an NCAA Regional against Washington, Arizona State, West Virginia, Penn State and New Hampshire. With a win, they’d advance to the NCAA Championships two weeks later.

SOFTBALL

It wasn’t the dominance Kelly Barnhill is used to, but her performance in the circle on Monday night was still enough to lead the Gators to a three-game sweep of Texas A&M.

Barnhill, Florida’s All-American ace, struck out 10 Aggies and allowed three earned runs over six innings to earn her 14th win of the season. She’s usually the story of the weekend for Florida’s softball team, but not this weekend.

That distinction goes to the team’s offense, which outscored TAMU 23-4. Infielder Nicole DeWitt drove in five RBIs on Saturday.

The team has a quick turnaround with a double header Wednesday afternoon against FIU in Gainesville.

OTHER SPORTS

▪ Florida’s men’s tennis team continued its role with two more victories this weekend, this time over Ole Miss and Arkansas. The No. 9 Gators face a big test this Friday at No. 1 Wake Forest.

▪ UF’s lacrosse team was up and down last week, with a loss to No. 9 Towson and a win over Georgetown. No. 9 Florida continues Big East play this Saturday at noon against UConn.

▪ Florida’s No. 18 women’s tennis team also picked up a pair of wins over the weekend, first at Alabama and then at No. 15 Auburn. The team continues SEC play this week against No. 46 Arkansas on Thursday and unranked Missouri on Saturday.

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