CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As the No. 1 closer on the Virginia baseball team, Nick Howard succeeded Kyle Crockett, who succeeded Justin Thompson, who succeeded Branden Kline, who succeeded Kevin Arico, the most recent pitcher to hold the job for back-to-back seasons (2009-10).
UVa closers had few peers nationally during that span. Arico, who’s now a student assistant at his alma mater, was an All-American in 2010, as was Kline in 2011.
When Kline moved into a starting role in 2012, Thompson was second-team All-ACC as a reliever.
Baltimore selected Kline in the second round of the 2012 major-league draft. Cleveland drafted Crockett, an All-American, in the fourth round in 2013, and Cincinnati picked Howard, also an All-American, in the first round last year.
— Josh Sborz
“There’s not one of them that wasn’t an absolute warrior,” pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. “And there’s not one of them that wasn’t 100 percent selfless and thinking about what was best for the team, and I think Josh has those qualities.”
Kuhn was referring to right-hander Josh Sborz, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior who the Cavaliers believe can be the program’s next elite closer.
“He certainly has that kind of stuff,” head coach Brian O’Connor said. “He’s got Nick Howard kind of stuff. … He’s a veteran guy, he’s got a lot of experience, and I think he’s going to do a great job in that, and it could really make a difference for him moving forward in his career, I think.”
Sborz made 30 appearances as a freshman in 2013, 27 of them out of the bullpen. He posted a 3-0 record with a 1.98 earned-run average for a team that won 50 games and advanced to an NCAA super regional.
In 2014, Sborz spent most of the season as a weekend starter for a team that finished as NCAA runner-up after losing to Vanderbilt in the championship game of the College World Series. He went 6-4 with a 2.92 ERA, striking out 72 in 77 innings and limiting opponents to a .210 batting average. Sborz also had a team-high 44 walks.
In the game that sent the Wahoos to Omaha, Nebraska, for the third time in six seasons, Sborz turned in a spectacular performance before a sellout crowd at Davenport Field. He struck out nine and allowed only four hits in seven innings to help Virginia pound Maryland 11-2 in the final game of their best-of-three super regional.
“He had pretty electrifying stuff the whole time he was out there,” Maryland outfielder Charlie White said afterward.
“That guy was unbelievable,” Maryland coach John Szefc said.
Howard set the ACC’s single-season record for saves (20) in 2014. Sborz knows it won’t be easy to match, let alone surpass the feats of the closers who preceded him at UVa. But he’s eager to try.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Sborz said on the first day of practice this month. “It’s not really new to me, because freshman year I had some time there in the bullpen and had some chances to close games. But the past two years I’ve seen two great closers pitch. I’ve seen what it is to be great as a closer, so I think I have an advantage. It should be a fun year.”
In terms of temperament, Sborz said, he falls somewhere between Crockett and Howard.
“They’re two opposite guys,” he said. “Nick was that vocal guy, and then Crockett was the quiet guy. I have both sides. I’ve talked to them [about closing], and they said to just take it as a regular game. You don’t want to overthink things, because that’s when you begin to struggle.”
Last year’s weekend starters, junior left-handers Brandon Waddell and Nathan Kirby, are back in those roles this year. Candidates to join them in the weekend rotation include sophomore right-hander Connor Jones and redshirt freshman right-hander Jack Roberts.
Not every pitcher is suited to be a closer.
“He’s got to have strikeout stuff,” Kuhn said. “That’s No. 1. No. 2, he’s got to be a different bird, he’s got to be a different animal. It takes two different personalities to start and relieve.”
Some pitchers can do both, as Kline, Crockett and Howard, among others, have proved at Virginia. “But I think if you talk to any college coach, he’ll tell you [closing] really takes a different personality,” Kuhn said.
Closing requires a high level of mental discipline, as well as patience.
“That is by far one of the hardest things to do,” Kuhn said. “You get to the field and you’re ready to play and ready to pitch for your team, and you don’t get to pitch that day or don’t get to pitch until five hours later, if you’re there for [batting practice].”
O’Connor understands the challenges. He was a closer for two seasons at Creighton before becoming a starter.
“I loved closing the most because I loved coming to the ballpark every day knowing that I could impact whether our team won or lost that game. So there’s a certain quality that a closer has to have,” O’Connor said last year. “They have to want to have that kind of impact.”
Sborz added: “You gotta be prepared in the bullpen, knowing that you have one inning to pitch, and you can’t give up anything. It starts in the bullpen, and you just gotta know that that’s your one inning and you need to get it done.”
A graduate of McLean High School in Northern Virginia, Sborz has a brother, Jay, who pitched in the majors for the Tigers. Sborz aspires to play professionally, too, and if he performs well as a closer, that should boost his stock.
“I don’t know for sure how much professional baseball looks at it, but if I was a general manager or scouting director, I’d like to know that I was getting somebody that has pitched in some different roles and had success in those different roles,” O’Connor said. “Because when they move on to the next level, and hopefully elevate themselves to the major leagues, they can’t all be starters. Some of them are eventually going to end up in the bullpen.”
Sborz was a starter last summer for the Orleans Firebirds in the prestigious Cape Code League. But he had no reservations about returning to the bullpen.
“Whatever the team needs, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said, “and that’s what the coaches wanted me to do, so that’s what I did.”
Virginia is heading into its 12th season under O’Connor, whose record is a staggering 514-177-2. The Cavaliers open against East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina. The three-game series starts Feb. 13. UVa’s home opener is Feb. 17 against VCU.
O’Connor’s roster includes more freshmen than upperclassmen, but expectations are high as always for the `Hoos. In voting among the conference’s head coaches this month, Virginia was picked to win the ACC.
“The first-years are really focused on knowing what they need to do and the upperclassmen have been really focused,” Sborz said. “I’m really excited for this year, and I think we’re going to do great, just like we did the last two years.”
As closer, Sborz figures to play a pivotal role in the Cavaliers’ pursuit of another College World Series appearance.
“I’m glad that he’s embraced it,” Kuhn said. “It’s going to be good for him, and it’s going to be really good for our team. He’s going to do outstanding work.
“He’s a very, very talented young man, and he’s grown up quite a bit, and I’m very privileged to coach him.”