Coming off the first national championship in program history, the Florida baseball team is dealing with heightened expectations while incorporating 16 newcomers into the 33-man roster.
Voted the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason and picked to win the SEC by coaches across the conference, it’s safe to say the Gators will have to prepare daily for the opposition’s best effort.
So, it would make sense if coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the Gators have re-tooled their preparation given the circumstances.
Not true, said closer Michael Byrne, who broke the program record with a nation-best 19 saves in 2017.
Aside from improving his fitness, the right-handed Byrne is approaching his junior season as if it’s just another year rather than one where he’ll be on the mound defending Florida’s first title.
“I’m just trying to throw hard and working on the command and all my secondary pitches as well, and just staying who I am,” Byrne said. “I approach it the same way I did last year, I guess. I mean, not really care what people think, I just go out there and pitch and control what I can control. I can’t control what people think about me.”
After Florida’s slow start to the season prior to a dominant run in conference play — the Gators opened the year with a 13-8 record — there’s no use overreacting to a slump early in the year. Rather than overanalyze the future and what went wrong at this point last season, Florida’s roster just seems eager to get back to playing ball, which is now just a week away when Siena College arrives in Gainesville for a three-game series at McKethan Stadium.
“I can’t wait. Pitching to these guys the last, I don’t know, eight months or whatever it’s been, it’s starting to get a little boring,” Byrne admitted. “I’d rather face some new faces in the box and get it going.”
While it isn’t the season opener, Byrne and Co. will get a break from facing the usual suspects Saturday at 4 p.m. during Florida’s Fan Day Alumni Scrimmage, set to feature 16 former UF baseball players, including Matt den Dekker, who has played five years in the MLB since being drafted by the New York Mets in 2010. Byrne said he’ll look to den Dekker for some advice about the ins and outs of the league outside the game itself.
“That would be fun, a big-leaguer,” Byrne said of possibly facing den Dekker. “(I’ll look to) just talk to them, picking their brains about what minor league ball is like, and seeing what they thought, what life is now. Maybe (ask about life) after pro ball and if they came back and got their degree.”
But when it comes to his daily preparation, Byrne doesn’t plan to change who he is or how he approaches the game. Besides, why would one look to alter anything after setting a national record?
“(I) just go out there and play the game every day. You can’t just focus on (the negatives),” Byrne said. “We had some mid-week games we lost last year that were not good, but we came back on weekends and won those series and just did what we did. We’re a close-knit bunch again this year, so I don’t feel we’ll have any issues about the way things are going to happen.”
Fan Day Saturday
The 2018 Gators’ squad will face off against former UF baseball players in a special alumni scrimmage at 4 p.m. Saturday at McKethan Stadium. Gates will open when batting practice begins at 2:20 p.m.
Sixteen former Florida baseball players are scheduled to participate. Several participating players are currently playing in the minor leagues and three players (Kevin Chapman, Matt den Dekker, Paco Rodriguez) have reached the Major League level during their career.
The scrimmage will be a full nine innings. Current UF players may fill in vacant positions on the Alumni roster as needed.
Fans can take their photo with the 2017 National Championship Trophy. Concessions will be available and fans will have a chance to win prizes.