By Kevin Brockway
Florida sophomore closer Michael Byrne said he approached Friday night like he would a normal save situation — throw strikes, get ahead in the count.
But there was little normal about what Byrne had to accomplish Friday night against Marist in UF’s Gainesville Regional opener.
With Florida clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh, Byrne was summoned to record an eight-out save. Florida junior JJ Schwarz provided some breathing room with a big three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, and the Gators held on to beat the scrappy Red Foxes 10-6 before 2,390 at McKethan Stadium.
The Gators (43-16) advanced to face USF on Saturday night at 7 p.m. (ESPN3) in a rematch of a May 9 game that the Bulls won 15-10. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said ace righty Alex Faedo (7-2, 2.80 ERA) will start for the Gators against USF redshirt freshman lefty Shane McClanahan. USF (42-17) advanced with a 9-1 win over third-seed Bethune-Cookman behind seven scoreless innings from former Buchholz High pitcher Phoenix Sanders, who earned the win for the Bulls.
“They have a very good club,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve been swinging the bats well and Alex has been pitching great for us so it should be an exciting ballgame.”
Florida overcame shaky defense (three errors) and an up-and-down start from sophomore righty Jackson Kowar to pick up a critical regional-opening win. Kowar (12-0) allowed five runs (two earned) on eight hits in 5.1 innings to earn the win.
Senior Frank Rubio then pitched an inning of relief but with Florida clinging to a 7-6 lead and the tying run on base with one out in the seventh, O’Sullivan turned to Byrne, who allowed just one hit and struck out three to record his program record 15th save of the season.
“There was no choice,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought the game was on the line at that point. They built up some momentum in their dugout and it worked out perfectly. Ideally we did not want to bring him in in the seventh, but he threw 25 pitches. He was very efficient.”
O’Sullivan said that due to the lower pitch count, Byrne would be available against USF.
“I was executing my slider, throwing fastballs for strikes, getting ahead of hitters as always,” Byrne said. “It was just big to get in front of the guys and keep my pitch count low.”
Kowar was shaky early, but worked out of jams. After Marist (32-22) stranded a pair of runners against Kowar in the first, the Red Foxes touched him up for three hits in the second inning, going ahead 1-0 on an RBI single from center fielder Matt Pagano.
But Florida answered with four runs in the second, aided by a Marist defensive gaffe. Nelson Maldonado led off the inning with a walk. Austin Langworthy then hit what appeared to be a sure-fire double play ball to shortstop, but Marist’s Randy Taveras booted it for an error. Christian Hicks then walked to load the bases, and Mike Rivera, on an 0-2 count, poked a two-RBI single to put the Gators up 2-1. Florida tacked on two more runs on a Nick Horvath RBI single and Jonathan India sacrifice fly, taking a 4-1 lead into the third inning.
The Gators extended their lead to 5-1 in the third inning on a Rivera sacrifice fly, but nearly unraveled in the fourth. Pagano and second baseman Anthony Lazar had back to back singles with one out in the fourth inning. Then sure-handed UF shortstop Dalton Guthrie lost the ball trying to tag Lazar on a double play. The ball rolled into the outfield, allowing Pagano to score from second base.
Marist then got another run on an error when Kowar, after looking a Marist runner back to third base, uncorked a wild throw past Hicks at first base. Frankie Gregorie later added a sacrifice fly in the inning, cutting UF’s lead to 5-4.
Florida went back ahead 6-4 on an India RBI single in the bottom of the fourth and went up 7-4 in the fifth when Hicks singled with one out and came home to score on three straight wild pitches.
Kowar was pulled at 99 pitches after allowing a single with one out in the sixth. Rubio then allowed a Tyler Kilpatrick double and two-RBI single from Taveras, cutting into UF’s lead to 7-6. But with the tying run at second, Rubio was able to strike out Marist cleanup hitter Greg Kocinski to get out of the inning.
In the eighth, Florida was able to get a pair of runners on for Schwarz, who launched a 3-1 fastball from Marist reliever Scott Boches over the bleachers in left field for his 10th homer of the season.
“He fell behind and he grooved one for me and I just put a good swing on it,” Schwarz said.
Marist rapped 12 hits in the losing effort and was not overwhelmed by the big stage. The Red Foxes will face Bethune-Cookman on Saturday at noon in an elimination game for both teams.
“I’m just jacked up to get to the park tomorrow,” Marist coach Chris Tracz said. “I’m glad we’re playing the early game, excited to get back on the field because we could have folded a couple of times and didn’t.”
Note: USF won the coin toss and will have be the home team vs. UF.
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or email@example.com. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.