By Pat Dooley
Sun sports columnist
It started out as a joke, just for laughs. OK, so it also brought attention to a kid who doesn’t seek any.
That was simply a side benefit.
Rita Byrne heard from a friend who had heard someone on TV say something about “#feelthebyrne.”
“My crazy friend and I decided we’d do it, make T-shirts,” Rita Byrne said. “It was supposed to just be for friends.”
Instead, it has gone viral.
The third shipment — this one with 40 crisp, new #feelthebyrne T-shirts — recently arrived. They have become so popular that Rita has people come up to her at Florida baseball games asking for T-shirts.
The pitcher in question just shrugs it off. He’s used to it. Michael Byrne said his mom has always been so supportive that his teammates called him “Rita” in high school.
“She’s always been the outgoing mom in the stands,” the sophomore pitcher said.
But the T-shirts are more than just for laughs or TV’s favorite go-to camera shot between pitches.
They symbolize what has been an incredible season for a guy who was supposed to be a midweek starter this year.
On Thursday, as Florida prepared for a Super Regional series against Wake Forest, Kevin O’Sullivan took himself back more than a year to last season’s SEC Tournament.
Sitting on a darkened bus while his team showered after getting blistered by Texas A&M in the championship game, Sully chatted with baseball guru and ESPN announcer Kyle Peterson.
“You know who’s going to surprise everybody next year?” Peterson said to the Florida coach. “Michael Byrne.”
Byrne had made three appearances in Hoover, but would finish the season with only 16 innings pitched. The plan was to have him pitch the midweek games this season while Florida searched for a closer.
As it turned out, he was standing right there in the middle of the week.
When it became clear to O’Sullivan that his promising freshmen weren’t ready for the sturdy bats of the SEC, O’Sullivan decided to try Byrne despite some trepidation about his less-than-elite fastball.
Against Tennessee early in the SEC season, Byrne took the loss in the first two games, both in extra innings.
“But I didn’t feel he had thrown poorly,” O’Sullivan said. “So I ran him out there again to show him I had confidence in him.”
And it worked. Byrne threw a pair of hitless innings and turned around not only his season, but gave the Gators someone they could count on at the back end of a game.
“That was by far the biggest turnaround for me this season,” Byrne said.
The saves just kept on coming and Byrne has shattered the UF record with 16, a number that is tied for first in the nation. This week, he was named third-team All-American.
So who saw that coming?
“I was just hoping to get some innings,” he said. “It’s turned out to be a little bit more, I guess.”
You could say that.
Consider last weekend’s regional.
In the first game, he threw 2⅔ innings of relief and picked up the save against Marist.
In the second game, he threw five innings of scoreless ball against South Florida and got the win.
And in the final game Monday, he closed down Bethune-Cookman with 2⅓ innings of scoreless relief to get another save.
“It’s not classic stuff,” said O’Sullivan. “His fastball is good enough. But the slider and change, it’s like putting a starter in to get three outs.
“There’s something he does that hitters don’t pick up.”
The soft-spoken Byrne is just happy for the opportunity, for the chance to be on the mound when the team pours out of the dugout after a big win.
And for Rita to get some air time as she celebrates her son.
“It’s a little embarrassing for Michael,” she said. “I’ve always been the boisterous one. He’s never wanted attention for himself. He’s not about himself. He loves the team and the people. I can’t believe I’ve raised such a sweet, humble kid.
“My heart is just swollen.”
You can tell. It’s right behind the Byrne.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.