WHO: No. 4 seed USF (34-20) vs. No. 5 seed UConn (29-25)
WHAT: First round of Big East Baseball Championship
WHERE: Bright House Field, Clearwater
RADIO: 1010-AM, BullsCast on GoUSFBulls.com
LIVE VIDEO: Bigeastbaseball.com
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Andrew Barbosa will step on the mound, glare at the catcher's mitt, wind up and fire USF's most valuable pitches of the season Wednesday night in Clearwater.
The fourth-seeded Bulls face off against No. 5 seed UConn in the first round of the Big East Baseball Championship with a ton on the line. USF is seeking its first trip to NCAA regionals since 2002 and would receive an automatic bid if it takes home the conference tournament title.
Barbosa stands tall at 6-foot-8 and has played huge for USF this season, going 7-5 with a 2.37 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings as the Bulls' top starter. The senior called getting the ball for Wednesday's game a reward and it certainly is after all he's been through in a college career some would have ended long ago.
Barbosa's road to Tampa started at Sarasota-Riverview High School with performances that helped the San Juan, Puerto Rico native get selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 15th round of the 2006 MLB draft.
"I don't think I was physically ready. I didn't worry about the money," said Barbosa, who turned down the opportunity and another given by the Giants in 2007.
Barbosa opted to play for South Florida Community College in Avon Park, Fla. The left-hander was an All-Star for the Panthers, but was limited to a little more than a season after having posterior labrum shoulder surgery in July 2008.
Lots of rehab followed and Barbosa was looking for a new place to call home when he took a chance at USF in August 2009. Barbosa walked into head coach Lelo Prado's office one day to chat and asked if he could walk on.
"I sat down and he thought I was joking. He just sat there and laughed at me and said, 'This is a joke right?' Barbosa said. "I said, 'No, I want to walk on.' He looked me up on the computer and we went from there."
Barbosa's timing was perfect because Prado was in need of pitching at the time. No tryout was required and Barbosa was directed to the equipment room to pick up some green and gold gear.
"When a 6-8 left-hander walks into your office you give him every chance you can," Prado said. "..."The first time we saw him throw we were like, 'Wow. Why weren't people knocking the door down?'"
Barbosa's first season as a Bull in 2010 made Prado feel very good about the decision. He became an All-Big East second team selection with an 8-2 record, a 2.40 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings. The stellar year earned him a big scholarship, but the innings took a toll on Barbosa's elbow.
"It wasn't a pain. It was almost like a nag. It was weird, but I knew something was wrong in there," he said. "I turned out having a pretty good year."
Barbosa's 2011 season lasted one start and a part of another when he exited in the fifth inning of a 3-2 victory over Elon in Tampa on Feb. 26.
"The first ball (of the fifth inning) I threw came out of my hand and rose out. It felt weird. I threw it again, same thing, probably 50 mph," Barbosa remembered.
Time was called and Barbosa found out a couple of weeks later that he'd already torn about 80 percent of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. The cramping that he'd been feeling in his forearm during his last start was because his arm was compensating for the damage that had been done in his elbow.
Tommy John surgery was completed in mid-March, Barbosa rehabbed all summer and he was back to throwing by October.
"I was scared, but I had it in my mind that I didn't want to baby it," he said. "If it's good to go, it's good to go."
Barbosa became very good as this season progressed. A few of his highlight-reel starts included a 13-strikeout outing against Georgetown, a 14-strikeout performance against Notre Dame while his gem of the year followed on May 4. Barbosa allowed just two hits in a complete game shutout of St. John's that served as a sign that he's close to becoming back to top form physically.
"I feel like it's getting stronger. I go deeper and deeper every time," he said. "I felt I could have kept pitching after nine innings."
Now Barbosa will attempt to pitch deep into Wednesday's ball game with a good amount of weight on his shoulders as USF attempts to work its way to Sunday's Big East Baseball Championship game that will be televised nationally on ESPNU. He's treating it like any other start, but it still has special meaning for a pitcher who wants to play as long as he can in the future.
"I feel like I've accomplished a lot. All that rehabbing and working out paid off," Barbosa said. "I'm rewarded with pitching in the first game of the tournament. I have to set the tone for our team."