Friday, March 23, 2018

University of Tampa's J.D. Osborne trades pucks for pitches

TAMPA — Sometimes, University of Tampa baseball senior J.D. Osborne hears from road fans who know he was born and raised in Canada.

"Hey, Osborne, you should be playing hockey!" they will call out from the stands.

"I usually yell back, 'I know! I know! I really should!' " Osborne said with a laugh.

At one time, Osborne was a promising hockey player who had a tendency to pick up the "Gordie Howe hat trick."

"Goal, assist, a little scrap along the way," Osborne said with a laugh.

At the hockey rink, he was a center. He was decent, hard-working, scrappy. But when he was 16, that road ended.

"I thought I would pursue it, but I wasn't chosen to pursue it," said Osborne, referring to high-level junior hockey. "I thought I would hang it up. I decided to concentrate on baseball. I thought I might have a little future in that, too."

As fallback options go, baseball has been wonderful for Osborne, who is second in UT batting at .387, while leading the team in home runs (16) and ranking fourth nationally in RBIs (62) at the NCAA Division II level.

"J.D. will have an opportunity to play professional baseball," Spartans coach Joe Urso said. "He has the talent. He's not just a pull hitter anymore. He's showing power to all fields. And he sure has the versatility."

Osborne, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, has filled in at needed spots for the Spartans, excelling at all of them, while maintaining a torrid offensive pace.

Last season, after transferring from Polk State College, Osborne alternated between catcher, third base and first base.

Now he has mostly settled in at first base, taking over for full-time starter Adrian Chacon, who broke his arm last month.

"I think J.D.'s power and ability to play catcher will really take him places," Urso said. "Catching is such a huge asset. If they believe he can go back there and catch every day, just be a bulldog, that's huge.

"He's strong as an ox. He's going to hit. I find it interesting that plenty of impressive teams have come in here and probably said, 'We're not going to let that guy (Osborne) beat us.' But he keeps finding ways to do that."

Osborne has added maturity to his list of skills.

And that has made a huge difference, Urso said.

"He's the captain of our team at this point and last year I would've said, 'No way will he ever be that,' " Urso said. "He takes a lot of pride in his ability. At third base, he's absolutely fearless, probably because of the hockey mentality. He plays well everywhere else.

"But this year, he has put it all together. The expectations of himself have gone way up in terms of doing extra work in the weight room and the cages. He's more comfortable here now and the other guys can feed off his example."

Even though his statistics could lead by example, Osborne said he feels more responsibility to be a vocal leader for younger players.

It's a role he never envisioned — mostly because he didn't necessarily expect a future in baseball.

He played with Canada's national team — a few of his teammates became high draft picks — and loved the time when it played at the Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, his favorite team.

Otherwise, he had a nice career at his high school. "A normal baseball team, no special academy," he said. "I wasn't sure what kind of options I would have."

Polk State became the best option and Osborne has loved his time in Florida, due to the weather and the high quality of baseball.

"I definitely want to play at the next level, definitely," Osborne said. "I think Canadian players are on the rise. We're mixing in with players with other cultures and having a good Canadian player is more commonplace than it used to be.

"I just want a shot."

Urso said Osborne should get that shot, which is more than he received from hockey.

"I don't think about it much or at all," Osborne said. "I still love hockey and I love my (Toronto Maple) Leafs. But baseball is my game now. It has been good to me and I can't wait for what's next."

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Published: 03/22/18