June 17, 2015
OMAHA, Neb. — As a schoolboy star in Northern Virginia, pitcher Jay Sborz committed to Arizona State. But he never suited up for the Sun Devils after graduating from Langley High. The Detroit Tigers drafted him 40th overall in 2003, and that summer the 6-4 right-hander began an injury-marred professional career that would last eight seasons.
Josh Sborz, nine years younger than Jay, is also a strapping right-hander with pro aspirations. But he chose to follow another path after graduating from McLean High School.
“I took the college route, and it’s absolutely paid off,” Sborz, Virginia’s closer, said Tuesday at the downtown hotel where he and his teammates are staying during the College World Series.
His brother made one appearance in the major leagues for the Tigers, in 2010. Jay does not regret his decision to turn pro out of high school, Josh Sborz said, but “he’s a little jealous that he never got to experience this college atmosphere. Just to get thrown [into the minor leagues] at 18, and to not experience the stuff I have, it’s extremely tough.”
In his three seasons as a Cavalier, the younger Sborz has played in three NCAA regionals, two super regionals, and two College World Series.
“It’s something you’ll never forget,” he said.
Through it all, Sborz has retained his trademark grin and laid-back personality. He laughs easily and refuses to take himself too seriously. If the pressure of performing on the college game’s biggest stage is affecting him, it’s impossible to tell.
Against Florida on Monday night, Sborz replaced starter Brandon Waddell with runners on first and third and none out in the top of the eighth inning. The Cavaliers led 1-0, but the Gators appeared poised to break through. Three batters later, however, Sborz trotted off the mound with the score unchanged, to Florida’s disbelief.
The first Gator to face Sborz was Harrison Bader, whose comebacker knocked the glove off Sborz’s hand. But Sborz stayed calm, picking up the ball and throwing to second base in time to get the force.
Richie Martin then lined out, after which Sborz retired Josh Tobias on a grounder, and that was that. So it goes for most batters against Sborz.
“He just wants the ball,” Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. “He’s fine with getting beat. If you beat him, he’ll just come back again tomorrow. He’s a baseball player.”
The Cavaliers are 7-0 in this NCAA tournament, and the 6-3, 225-pound Sborz has made six appearances. He’s yet to give up an earned run, and he dominated the final two innings in UVa’s 1-0 upset of Florida.
That he pitched twice in Omaha last season has helped him this year.
“I’ve been through it all,” Sborz said. “I’ve seen what it takes for us to win. It’s baseball, so you can’t really be nervous about it.”
In 2014, UVa finished as NCAA runner-up after losing to Vanderbilt in the third and final game of the College World Series championship series. That Virginia team entered the NCAA tourney as the No. 3 overall seed. These `Hoos were seeded No. 3 in the four-team regional at Lake Elsinore, Calif.
There was immense pressure on the Cavaliers last year once they reached Omaha, Sborz acknowledged Tuesday, and the team felt it.
“This year we weren’t even supposed to be here,” he said. “[The experts] kind of had us out, so we’re just playing as if we have nothing to lose.”
That formula could not be working better for the `Hoos. They opened the CWS with a 5-3 win over Arkansas on Saturday afternoon, then knocked off mighty Florida (50-17) two nights later. And now they need only one win to advance to the CWS Finals for the second straight year.
UVa’s first opportunity will come Friday at 3 p.m. (EST) against Florida or Miami (Fla.). If the `Hoos lose that game, the teams will meet again Saturday, with the winner moving on to the best-of-three CWS Finals.
“To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to what game we’re at,” Sborz said. “We’re just playing it as a game and having fun. I just don’t see anyone getting tight. We’re just kind of doing the same things we’ve been doing.”
In this month’s Major League Baseball draft, the Los Angeles Dodgers picked Sborz 74th overall, and he’s done nothing since then to make them question that decision. Strong in the regular season, he’s been virtually untouchable in the NCAA tournament.
For the season, Sborz is 5-2, with a 1.80 earned-run average, and has struck out 57 in 60 innings. Opponents are batting .158 against him.
“He’s got confidence in who he is,” Kuhn said. “He knows who he is, and he just attacks the zone, and he’s hard to hit.”
The `Hoos have used Sborz in a variety of roles since he joined head coach Brian O’Connor’s program in the summer of 2012. As a freshman in 2013, Sborz made 30 appearances — 27 out of the bullpen — and posted a 3-0 record (and 1.98 ERA) for a team that won 50 games and advanced to an NCAA super regional.
Sborz spent most of his sophomore season as a weekend starter. He went 6-4 with a 2.92 ERA and turned in a spectacular performance in the final game of the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field. Sborz struck out nine and allowed only four hits in seven innings to help the `Hoos pound Maryland 11-2.
With Nick Howard gone to the pros, Virginia needed a new closer this year, and Kuhn turned to No. 27. As a middle reliever in 2013, Sborz had “been in that fire before, so I wasn’t worried about whether he could do it,” Kuhn said.
For all of Sborz’s talent, though, he struggled at times to adjust to his new role. In his first 14 appearances this year, he allowed only 12 hits, but six were home runs.
“I was just trying to do too much,” he recalled. “I was just acting like a youth, just thinking that I could beat everyone with my stuff, and when you get to this level, it’s not [all about a pitcher’s] stuff.”
Now, Sborz said, “I’m just trying to keep everything down. I haven’t really run into trouble too much lately with giving up deep balls” — he paused to knock on a wooden table — “but I think that’s really come from keeping the ball down and throwing my off-speed [pitches] for strikes, which was a problem, and I’ve also kept my walks down. The first couple weeks in the season when I was running into trouble, a lot of it was because I would walk someone and then I’d have to throw an easily hittable pitch.”
Giving up the homers was frustrating, Sborz said, but it did not shake his confidence.
“I think after the third or fourth one — because they really happened pretty much at the same time — I would just turn around and laugh, because that’s all you can do when it happens,” Sborz said. “I’ve never really given up that many home runs in my life, even the last two years, even as a starter. It came as a shock a little bit in the beginning, but I just kind of take it day by day, and I knew eventually it was going to stop.”
His cheering section in Omaha includes his parents, one of his two sisters, and his girlfriend, UVa women’s soccer standout Alexis Shaffer, who played last month for the United States’ U23 national team in Norway.
Jay Sborz is planning to join the family in Omaha if the Cavaliers reach the CWS championship series. He’s now a pitching instructor in Northern Virginia who remains a big influence on his kid brother.
“He was ultra-talented, and he just kind of got unlucky with his arm and stuff,” Josh Sborz said. “I learned a lot from that. He’s always taught me about the importance of arm care, and I’ve always looked up to him when it comes to baseball.”
A history major at UVa, Sborz is likely to turn pro after the CWS ends, but he plans to finish work on his degree as his schedule permits.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think it’s important to have it, because you never know. I could be done [playing baseball] in a year. I could be done in 20 years.”
However his professional career unfolds, this much is certain: Sborz will never forget his days as a Cavalier.
“To get this experience where there’s team camaraderie and you all work together in the fall [and the spring] and you just build this friendship, I don’t think you’ll ever lose it,” he said.