With the Gators clinging onto a one-run lead in the eighth inning, Michael Byrne toed the rubber and eyed down Tennessee’s Justin Ammons.
After drawing the loss in both of the extra-inning games that opened the series, it was a tense situation for the sophomore pitcher: Bases loaded, two outs, full count.
But when the Gators needed him most on Sunday, Byrne pulled through. He forced Ammons to rip a pitch straight back to the pitcher’s mound, which Byrne fielded cleanly and tossed to first base for the inning-ended out before closing the door in the ninth.
No. 7 Florida salvaged the little it could in its three-game series with Tennessee by taking the finale 5-4 on Sunday afternoon.
The win allowed the Gators (21-11, 6-6 SEC) to move back to .500 in SEC play and avoid its first sweep by Tennessee since 2001.
After leading 2-0 lead on runs in the second and third innings, Florida tacked on three runs in the fourth to take a 5-0 lead it would not relinquish.
The surge started with a Christian Hicks single. Nick Horvath was hit by a pitch and then Deacon Liput followed up with a walk to load the bases with no outs. Dalton Guthrie walked on four pitches on the next plate appearance to force Hicks home. A JJ Schwarz sacrifice fly and Mike Rivera RBI single drove in the other two runs in the frame.
The lead looked to be enough to give starting pitcher Jackson Kowar the win despite the sophomore fading away late in his start.
After giving up just three hits in the first five innings, Kowar surrendered back-to-back-to-back singles to start the sixth before coach Kevin O’Sullivan went to the bullpen. All three of those runs ended up scoring to bring the Volunteers (17-12, 3-9 SEC) within 5-3.
After a clean seventh inning by Garrett Milchin and Kirby McMullen, freshman Andrew Baker came to the mound and gave up two hits and a run in the eighth to allow Tennessee to creep within 5-4. O’Sullivan then turned to Byrne.
He was first saved by shortstop Dalton Guthrie, who made a web-gem, over-the-shoulder grab in the shallow outfield. Then, Byrne struck out Max Bartlett for the second out. A walk loaded the bases before Byrne forced the critical groundout to get out of the jam.
Pitching: Florida’s starting pitchers gave up 11 total runs (10 earned runs) of 21 hits in 18 innings of work, which equals a 5.00 ERA. The trio struck out 23 batters while giving up just four walks. The highlight performance from the group was Saturday starter Brady Singer, who gave up just two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings of work while striking out eight batters. He was the only UF starting to make it past the sixth inning.
Hitting: Ryan Larson was the hot bat for Florida, going 8 of 14 at the plate (.571) with a home run and three runs scored. … Florida left 34 runners on base during the three-game series. … Florida hitters struck out just 11 times in three games against Tennessee, with no one striking out more than twice. Heading into the weekend, Florida hitters struck out on average 20.4 times during their first seven weekend series.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Florida now prepares for a four-game road stretch next week. The Gators travel to Tallahassee on Tuesday for its final midweek game against Florida State before heading to Nashville for a Thursday-Saturday series with Vanderbilt.
Freshman Tyler Dyson (1-0, 3.55 ERA) will draw the start on Tuesday against the Seminoles. As of right now, O’Sullivan said he plans to keep his weekend rotation of Alex Faedo, Singer and Kowar in order for the series at Vanderbilt despite the three-game set starting a day earlier.