OMAHA, Neb. — Florida has yet to play a game decided by one run at the College World Series this year.
Kind of figures.
After losing five straight one-run games at previous CWS trips — last year to Texas Tech and eventual national champion Coastal Carolina and a pair in 2015 to champ Virginia — Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan set about building a team that could thrive in tight spots.
The Gators are 18-7 in one-run games this year as they enter the CWS finals on Monday night (7 ET, ESPN) against LSU.
So how do you coach a team to win like that?
“It comes down to two things,” O’Sullivan said last week as Florida rolled to three wins in four games, earning a spot in the best-of-three finals with a 3-0 win over TCU on Saturday night. “Throw strikes and play better defense.
“If you beat us, you’re going to have to hit your way to it.”
The 11th-year Florida coach stopped mid-thought.
“And Michael Byrne. We got on a roll and started to get all kinds of confidence in Michael. We wouldn’t be where we’re at without Michael Byrne.”
You can’t plan everything in a baseball season. Byrne is a case in point.
The sophomore right-hander began this season without a defined role after throwing 16 innings a year ago for the Gators, who had come to Omaha as the No. 1 seed last year and lost both games.
Byrne started three games in the first month of this season then shifted to the role of closer, as freshman Tyler Dyson showed that he “wasn’t quite ready,” according to O’Sullivan.
In Saturday night’s 3-0 win TCU, Byrne earned his 18th save. He relieved Alex Faedo with one out in the eighth and one runner aboard. Zach Humphreys promptly singled, but Byrne struck out the dangerous Evan Skoug and retired cleanup hitter Cam Warner on a fly ball.
Not a one-run game, but it was about as high-leverage as the situation gets.
“I have to go out and make the pitches,” Byrne said. “Doesn’t matter who the hitter is. Have to go out and throw strikes.”
The Gators have issued 13 walks — seven in their three victories — and committed two errors in 36 CWS innings.
Florida, without a national title in its 11th CWS appearance, played for the title once in five previous visits under O’Sullivan. It was swept by South Carolina in the 2011 finals, including a 2-1 loss in 11 innings to open the series.
“Every team’s different,” O’Sullivan said. “You just hope the more times you come out here, you get more relaxed. And let’s face it, you have to have breaks go your way, too.”
These Gators have played more like Florida of the regular season than Florida’s CWS teams of the past two seasons, according to first baseman JJ Schwarz.
“Not changing because of the circumstances,” Schwarz said. “Being the third time around, we’ve realized that. The coaches definitely talked about that. They made sure that we knew not to get outside of who we are as a team.”
Florida pitchers have recorded 52 strikeouts, best among all teams in Omaha.
“We’ve pitched well, played good defense and had timely hitting,” infielder and designated hitter Christian Hicks said. “We’ve won all those areas throughout the season. It’s paying off for us here.”
Faedo, with 22 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings over two victories, likely has started his last collegiate game.
Sophomore right-hander Brady Singer gets the ball on Monday against LSU.
Singer fired seven strong innings in a win over Louisville last week. He threw a complete game, allowing six hits and no walks on March 25 in an 8-1 win over LSU in Gainesville.
“A lot of people struggled against Brady,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the country.”
The Gators won two of three games in that series. It featured a 1-0 win in the opener, the first of Florida’s nine one-run victories this season against SEC competition.
Is there another one-run decision left in favor of the Gators? If so, and it wins them a national championship, O’Sullivan can say it happened just as he knew it must after the past two years of close misses in Omaha.