Barbosa, at 6-8, a hidden gem for surging Bulls
"I thought it was a joke. I thought he was a basketball player," said the Bulls' Lazer Collazo. "I wasn't aware of him. None of us were aware of him. He's a great competitor and a great clubhouse guy. I thank God that he sent us a Christmas present early."
Andrew Barbosa, in fact, has never played organized basketball, though coach Lelo Prado jokes that he kept Bulls basketball coach Stan Heath at a safe distance when he threw out the first pitch at a game last week.
What Barbosa has done is become the surprise star of a resurgent Bulls team that has overcome a 3-12 start to finally reach .500 at 16-16. USF now sits in first place in the Big East standings with an 8-1 conference record, and Barbosa has been especially dominant in his last three starts -- three wins, 30 strikeouts and a tiny 1.61 ERA.
Barbosa was actually a 15th-round draft pick by the Giants out of Riverview High in 2006, but he said he wasn't ready and enrolled at South Florida Community College in Avon Park. The Giants drafted him again in 2007, but he stayed at SFCC, though he would go more than a year without pitching after undergoing surgery in July 2008 for a posterior labrum tear in his left shoulder.
With a few high school teammates on roster at USF, he made the bold leap to start classes in August, without so much as a word with the Bulls coaches. Needless to say, he's surprised himself with his recovery and progress.
"It's surprised me a lot," said Barbosa, a communications major. "It feels great to be here now. It's amazing. I never thought I'd get this far."
Barbosa has four pitches at his disposal, but the delivery on his fastball and changeup are close enough that his own teammates can't tell what's coming.
"His motion, his arm speed, it's all the same," Prado said. "When he throws the changeup, as a hitter you've got no chance. You can see his confidence growing with every start."
Barbosa said the secret to his turnaround was improved conditioning -- a steady regimen of running around campus has helped him drop 20 pounds to his current 225.
"I was a little lazy in high school. I admit it," Barbosa said. "I ran when I had to. Now I run for no reason. After practice, I throw and then I run. Maybe 25 or 30 minutes, but losing the weight, it's a load off."
Barbosa didn't get his first win as a Bull until March 20, but the real coming-out party was the gem he threw at Cincinnati on April 2 -- a three-hit shutout with 16 strikeouts, the most by a Bulls pitcher in 23 years. He followed that with an 11-strikeout win Saturday against Georgetown. In all, he's tied with teammate Randy Fontanez for the Big East lead with 63 strikeouts.
His success isn't a total surprise to the Bulls -- outfielder Junior Carlin, who played with him in Little League and at Riverview, remembers Barbosa spending entire practices throwing at milk crate set up as a makeshift strike zone, emptying a bucket of balls, collecting them and emptying them again. It was Carlin who walked him over to the baseball office on the second day of classes last fall.
"I knew he was going to make the team," Carlin said. "I see a real big difference in him. He actually sees that he can be good if he puts the work in. The sky's the limit with that guy."
Junior Stephen Hunt has known Barbosa since he was 10, playing Little League in South Brandon, and his dad saw his size at a tryout and got him on Hunt's team. A year later, on different teams, Hunt found out that Barbosa could hit, too.
"He hit the longest home run off me," Hunt said. "He was pitching, too, shutting us out, striking everybody out. Then he came up to bat. The fields were like 200 feet, and he might have hit it 320. ... When I found out he was coming here, I was excited. Not only because he has such a good arm, but he's an all-around good guy, fun to be around."
As USF looks to build on its strong conference start -- this weekend, they face second-place Rutgers on the road -- Barbosa's mere presence on the team represents the good fortune USF has needed, and the hard work that's taken his game to another level.
"It's about time we got a break," said Prado, whose team has battled injuries in overcoming its rough start. "He's a great kid. He works hard. I knew Lazer was going to push him and push him, and he's gotten himself in pretty good shape. He's got a great attitude. Who knows where we would be without him."