TAMPA — It is a college baseball pitching coach's dream come true: A 6-foot-8 student walks into your office, says he wants to try out for the baseball team — and oh, he's a lefty.
"I thought it was a joke. I thought he was a basketball player," Bulls pitching coach Lazer Collazo said. "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 head baseball coach Lelo Prado jokes that he kept Stan Heath at a safe distance when the Bulls basketball coach threw out the first pitch at a game last week.
Barbosa has become the surprise star of a resurgent team (16-16) that has overcome a 3-12 start. USF is first in the Big East standings with an 8-1 conference record, and Barbosa has been especially dominant in his past three starts — three wins, 30 strikeouts and a 1.61 ERA.
Barbosa was a 15th-round draft pick of 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 the roster at USF, he made the leap to start classes in August, without so much as a word with the Bulls coaches.
His recovery and progress has "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, but the deliveries 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 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 got his first win as a Bull on March 20, but the real coming-out party was 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. 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 a 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 the Bulls play at second-place Rutgers — Barbosa's mere presence represents the good fortune USF has needed and the hard work that has taken his game to another level.
"It's about time we got a break," said Prado, whose team has battled injuries. "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."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.