Tyler Dyson never thought he would get a chance to start a College World Series game. He was a middling relief pitcher throughout the regular season with an ERA higher than 4.00 and only a year of experience as a high school starter under his belt.
Florida’s plans changed during the double elimination stages in Omaha, Neb. Instead of assuring their berth in the CWS finals in the minimum number of games, the Gators lost once, forcing an all-hands-on-deck approach to get Florida to its first national title.
Before the championship series against Louisiana State, the seeds were planted to assure Dyson his place in program lore.
Florida’s coaches know the Gators would have to piece together a rotation for the CWS championship series, and in all likelihood, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan says during a pregame press conference, it means pressing one of the team’s relievers into starting duty for Game 2. O’Sullivan mentions Dyson and Michael Byrne, the Gators’ All-American closer.
Florida jumps to a two-run lead in Game 1, but LSU threatens in the sixth. O’Sullivan calls to the bullpen and gets Dyson and Byrne up. Whoever he doesn’t bring in will almost certainly start Game 2.
Dyson’s warm-up period lasts only a few pitches. Byrne enters in the bottom of the eighth and earns his 19th save of the season.
“We went down and they said, ‘Both get loose.’ I threw a couple pitches and they said, ‘Shut it down,’ ” Dyson recalls. “I was going to have to start tomorrow.”
Byrne gets the final out for Florida and the Gators pour on the field to celebrate their first win in a CWS finals, a 4-3 victory. They’re one win away from the first national championship in program history.
The Game 2 starter will not be announced until O’Sullivan’s postgame press conference. Dyson finds out as he is walking into the clubhouse after the game and O’Sullivan pulls the freshman aside.
“Get ready,” O’Sullivan told him. “Your turn. Go out there and win.”
“I was excited,” Dyson says. “That’s why you come to Florida, and that’s what you dream about growing up, and playing Little League and playing high school ball. And even throughout the year. You dream of getting the coach’s confidence and trust to go out there in the clinching game of the World Series.”
Sometime in the middle of the night
As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough for Dyson to sleep anyway, Nate Brown was snoring. The two freshman right-handers were paired as roommates in Nebraska and after the CWS ended Tuesday, Dyson mentions he didn’t get much sleep before making his historic start.
It gives him time to think about LSU’s roster up and down. He knows the Tigers, particularly at the top of the order, like to swing early in the count. He knows they were fast and could potentially terrorize him on the bases. He knows the massive crowd would be filled with fans clad in purple and yellow.
“I was going through the whole game batter by batter and kind of imagining the situations,” Dyson says, “trying to imagine what it would be like to get the final out there.”
It didn’t happen often this year, but every time Dyson is scheduled to start, Braden River High School head coach Craig Page will send a text message to his former ace. On the day of the biggest start of Dyson’s career, Page wants to remind him that this stage wasn’t something that would overwhelm him.
A little more than a year ago, Dyson pitched a shutout against Lakewood Ranch High School in a game televised by Bright House Sports Network, now known as Spectrum Sports. That doesn’t compare to the potential clinching game of the CWS. It was still something, though, and for Dyson, who didn’t start until his senior year at Braden River, there weren’t a ton of games that compare to the CWS.
Dyson is taking one class during the summer session that corresponds with UF’s postseason: an accounting class. On Tuesday, of all days, he has a mid-term.
Around noon, he sits at his computer to show off some business acumen.
“It was kind of good because it took my mind off the game for a little bit and let me focus on something else instead of trying to imagine something like situations throughout the game,” Dyson says.
Dyson gets his grade back before he heads to TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha. He gets an 86.
“Which I thought was a good omen,” Dyson says.
The rest of his afternoon is taken up by the same small activities he did before throwing seven innings across two games against Wake Forest in an NCAA tournament super regional.
Dyson doesn’t have many superstitions beyond a little bit of a YouTube deep dive. He types “Kobe Bryant” into the search bar and goes to work, studying the former Lakers star’s mindset. It doesn’t matter that Dyson is originally from Massachusetts and a Boston sports fanatic. Whatever it takes to become a legend.
LSU fans dominate the 26,679 on hand in the stadium. Dyson needs to start well.
“That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of and it’s the biggest stage in college baseball,” Dyson said. “I think the biggest thing for me is trying to get strike one and get the leadoff guy out because LSU is a team that can run, and if you get the leadoff guy on they can hit and run.”
Dyson throws his first pitch across the plate and, like most of his first pitches throughout the evening, it’s a strike. He winds up throwing 75 pitches in a little more than six innings. Fifty are strikes.
A leadoff single in the top of the seventh chases Dyson from the game and brings Byrne in to try to escape the jam with a 2-0 lead
It gets scary quickly. Zach Watson steals second then comes home to score on an RBI double by Josh Smith. Dyson’s line is complete: six innings, three hits, one earned run, two walks and two strikeouts. His win, though, is in jeopardy with a runner on second and no outs.
“It’s a lot more nerve-wracking when you’re not in the game and you can’t control what’s going on,” Dyson said. “Sometimes you just need some breaks to go your way.”
A single puts runners on the corners with no outs. Michael Papierski grounds into a double play to send Smith home, but only for a few moments. An illegal takeout slide at second base makes for an easy call: Interference. Smith has to go back to third. Byrne escapes with a lineout.
An inning later, Florida converts a play at the plate to prevent another LSU run. The Tigers’ two best chances to knot the score are thwarted.
It’s over. Florida wins its first national championship 6-1 after the Gators tack on four insurance runs in the eighth inning and Dyson is the unlikely hero.
The importance of his performance will not set in for at least a few days for Dyson. “It hasn’t,” Dyson says immediately following the game and a few days later, after a celebration back in Gainesville, it still will not have.
“It’ll probably settle in when we get back in the fall and we get our rings,” Dyson says. “To be the first team at Florida to win it, no one can take that away from us. There can be other teams that win it, but we’ll always be the first ones.”
When he finally gets to his cell phone, he has almost 200 unread text messages and another couple hundred Twitter notifications.
Alfred A. McKethan Stadium in Gainesville is already packed with more than 2,000 fans when the national champions walk out to the field. The veteran stars take their time to address the crowd. College World Series MVP Alex Faedo makes his final remarks before likely signing with the Detroit Tigers. Brady Singer speaks; he led Florida to a Game 1 win. Deacon Liput speaks to give the offensive perspective.
And then the fans are invited down on the field. This is when Dyson, who was a virtual unknown as recently as two or three weeks ago, first feels the appreciation the Florida community has for him. A handful of former players stop to thank the freshman for his role in history.
“There was a couple baseball alumni there, and they said that they were super happy for us,” Dyson says. “To say that they were able to watch it and finally see Florida and Sully get their first title was unbelievable. People were congratulating me, but really the whole team.
“Everyone did their part and that’s why we came up on top.”