TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – About a week ago, Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell approached head coach Mike Martin with a small piece of good news.
“Coach Bell came in and said, ‘Boy, ‘Birdy’ just had the best bullpen (practice session) I think I’ve seen him have in three years,’” Martin said.
“I said, ‘Well great, I’m sure he’ll get an opportunity.’”
The “Birdy” in question is Alec Byrd, the Seminoles’ senior left-handed reliever. And given an opportunity in the biggest moment of FSU’s season thus far, Byrd delivered perhaps the finest outing of his career.
With FSU and No. 3 Clemson engaged in a back-and-forth duel in Monday’s rubber match of a three-game series, Byrd tipped the scales toward the Seminoles by pitching three strong innings to earn his second win of the season in a 7-6 victory.
The hard-hitting Tigers had scored five runs – all via home runs – prior to Byrd’s arrival. But the Miami Shores native held Clemson to just three hits overs the final three frames, and the Tigers’ only run during that stretch came after an FSU fielding error.
“I was just trying to keep us in it,” Byrd said. “I’m not going to lie. This was a huge game. I know we’ve been struggling, and our team played really well.”
Indeed, after the game Martin cautioned against overstating the significance of this win. The Seminoles still have a long road to travel and difficult opponents ahead.
Still, given the circumstances – FSU entered Monday’s game having lost four of five and hadn’t won a weekend series in three weeks – it sure felt like a big deal.
And, were it not for Byrd, it might not have happened.
He entered the game in a jam, with two on and no outs after the Tigers had roughed up the usually reliable Drew Carlton.
But thanks to some solid defense – right-fielder Rhett Aplin saved a run with a spectacular throw home after a base hit – followed by a grounder to third and a strikeout, Byrd kept the Tigers off the scoreboard.
“He did a great job of keeping it low,” catcher Cal Raleigh said. “Anybody can hit a fastball or curveball that’s up in the zone, chest-high. He did a great job of keeping his curveball and fastball low to where if they did get a good hit, it was just going to be a groundball.”
Byrd might have been even more impressive in the top of the eighth when, after the Tigers plated an unearned run, he ran a full count against Clemson’s Reed Rohlman, the ACC’s fifth-leading hitter (.374), before fooling him with an off-speed pitch for an inning-ending strikeout.
Finally, nursing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth with the heart of Clemson’s order due up, Byrd worked around a two-out single to retire the side and give FSU its most important victory of the season.
Along the way, he set down Seth Beer, the reigning ACC player of the year, as well as promising freshman Logan Davidson and fifth-year senior Andrew Cox.
Those three have a combined 21 home runs and 80 RBIs between them.
“It was very impressive,” Martin said. “Because those folks can hit. They were tough outs.”
Added Byrd: “The crowd roaring in the ninth inning, I don’t think I’d ever experienced that in that close a game. Especially nationally televised. It was very fun.”
The game represented a startling return to form for Byrd, who finished last season with the team’s lowest earned-runs average (2.20) and opponent batting average (.159) but had stumbled to a 7.41 ERA in 16 appearances this year.
Byrd attributed his early-season struggles to a bout with back spasms, which not only caused pain but also threw off Byrd’s pitching motion.
“After those back spasms,” he said, “I kind of felt like I tried to fix stuff in my motion that didn’t need to be fixed to compensate.”
Byrd’s road back featured a lot of extra time with Bell, as well as a few overtime shifts in the film room.
It took a while, but, after that bullpen session last week, Byrd began to feel like himself again.
And, with two strong outings against one of college baseball’s top offenses now in the books (Bryd threw a scoreless ninth in FSU’s 7-3 victory on Sunday), he looks like a potential late-innings anchor as the Seminoles embark on the home stretch of their season.
“It was really fun. I enjoyed it,” Byrd said. “…Hopefully it keeps working out for me.”