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College baseball: Showings in Gainesville land West Virginia's Zarbnisky a free-agent deal with Philadelphia Phillies
Zarbnisky
West Virginia's Braden Zarbnisky throws during a 2019 game against UNLV in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo courtesy Joe Mitchin

If Braden Zarbnisky makes it in the majors, he’ll never forget those nights pitching earlier this month in Gainesville. 

The right-handed pitcher from the University of West Virginia, who still had one year of college eligibility remaining, was at the right place at the right time to launch his professional baseball career.

The 23-year-old from Marietta, who also finished his college career hitting over .300 as an everyday outfielder, when not on the mound, never could have guessed it would be in Hall County. 

“I’m ecstatic with the way it’s worked out,” said Zarbnisky.

After a nearly five month layoff since last pitching at West Virginia, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zarbnisky was primarily just trying to stay sharp on the mound. He’d gotten a bit rusty facing batters from 60-feet, 6-inches away.

That’s how he ended up throwing at Chestatee High, playing sandlot games against the Gainesville Braves.

Two spectacular showings later, Zarbnisky inked a free-agent contract July 22 with the Philadelphia Phillies. 

He showed what diligence and preparation can do for someone who wants to play in the big leagues. Not even a herniated disk injury, which required surgery in 2019, or global pandemic could keep Zarbnisky from chasing dreams of pitching in the majors.

Once the 6-foot-1, two-way player saw his opening, he made the most of his opportunity. 

The main draw, this summer, for the Gainesville Braves has been University of Georgia right-hander Jonathan Cannon, who dazzled when he got a shot out of the Bulldogs’ bullpen in 2020, but has two more years before he’s draft eligible. Scouts are keeping a constant eye on the 6-foot-6 Cannon’s progression.

Zarbnisky is much different. 

He’s four years into his West Virginia career, but still hadn’t landed a pro deal. 

However, life changes at the blink of an eye.

Playing for the Alpharetta Aviators, Zarbnisky traveled to Gainesville for a sandlot game against the Gainesville Braves. 

Right away, Zarbnisky, who had a career 3.58 ERA and 13-5 record, impressed Gainesville Braves manager Micah Owings, who had a long and successful pro pitching career. 

“(Braden) has velocity and electric stuff you don’t see very often,” said Owings, who is also a Gainesville High graduate. 

Everyone had a similar reaction to seeing Zarbnisky on the bump. 

Gainesville Braves pitching coach Cris Carpenter, also a successful MLB player, just replied ‘good gosh’ after returning to the dugout between innings, Owings said. 

Owings told his players just tip their cap to Zarbnisky, instead of being frustrated, after taking three strikes against him at the dish.

After going undrafted in 2020 following an abridged five-round process, Zarbnisky made it clear he was ready to make the next step. 

Pitching against the top college players was a perfect place to be seen. 

Owings and Alpharetta manager Brandon Boggs, who played together at Georgia Tech, worked quick to get the word out on Zarbnisky to salivating scouts who were eager to pounce on unsigned talent. 

With the buzz out about Zarbnisky, who only gave up one hit in 4 2/3 innings off the mound in the shortened 2020 season for the Mountaineers, he agreed to a return trip to pitch again three days later. 

This time, he was throwing in front of nearly 20 scouts in Gainesville, Zarbnisky said. 

And, again, Zarbnisky was clocking in the mid 90s with his fastball, but didn’t tip his hand too soon when throwing his breaking ball, Boggs said. 

“Braden has a power breaking ball,” said Owings. 

Zarbnisky said his first free-agent offer came from the Minnesota Twins, but was reminded by both Owings and Boggs to let the process play out and see who else came calling. 

Sure enough, the Phillies stepped in and gave Zarbnisky an offer he couldn’t refuse. 

Now that he’s signed a pro contract, Zarbnisky has ended his college career. 

It’s all a crazy turn of events for a pitcher who was eager to test the market, but didn’t know he’d be snapped up in the big leagues after going almost five months since his final college outing at West Virginia. 

His summer started by going to workout with the Boggs Baseball Academy in Sandy Springs. Boggs said he played for Zarbnisky’s father at Pope High. 

Even though the Sunbelt League pulled the plug on the 2020 season, Zarbnisky still opted to take the mound for Boggs’ Aviators team in ‘sandlot’ showcases.

His two showings happened to be against Gainesville at Chestatee High. 

Zarbnisky showed he could dominate against other premier Division-I talent. 

Now, he’s got his eyes on making it to the big leagues. 

“I couldn’t be more excited for Braden,” Owings said.

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