MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s 2019 baseball season ended in the most painful way imaginable — an opponent ending the best season in school history by hitting a walk-off grand slam on the Mountaineers’ home field.
Of course, that was pain as defined by 2019 standards.
This year’s Mountaineers didn’t get to settle their fate on the field. Their season ended on a bus — and they didn’t even know it.
WVU was about 15 minutes from the Pittsburgh airport, ready to depart for its Big 12-opening series against third-ranked Texas Tech. That’s when the news came that the series was canceled.
“We were like ‘OK, one weekend’s canceled,'” said West Virginia redshirt senior outfielder/reliever Braden Zarbnisky. “Let’s just look forward to the next weekend and take it day-by-day.”
They didn’t even make it 24 hours before the College World Series itself was canceled. Within next two weeks, any hopes of salvaging the season in any form were officially gone as conferences eliminated all spring sports events in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And at that moment, it became fair to wonder whether Braden Zarbnisky was the unluckiest guy in college baseball.
Zarbnisky wasn’t even supposed to be here anymore. He was meant to be one of the leaders on WVU’s first team to host a regional in six decades, exiting triumphantly alongside the likes of Alek Manoah, Ivan Gonzalez, Darius Hill and Brandon White.
His back was not on board with the plan. A herniated disc was pushing against a nerve in his spine. He’d need surgery, and was forced to watch his teammates reach unprecedented heights while recovering and rehabbing.
“It was tough to sit out and see that, but also awesome to watch those guys succeed like that,” Zarbnisky said. “That was a fun time in my life to be part of.”
Fully healed, Zarbnisky hit the ground running in 2020.
His back wasn’t hurting. His pitching velocity was increasing. He was leading the Big 12 with a .431 batting average and may have been even better on the mound. In 4 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, Zarbnisky picked up two saves, striking out eight batters against one hit and three walks.
“Being able to play again this season was incredible,” Zarbnisky said. “Just being able to get back out with my teammates.”
A mere 16 games into a 54-game regular season, it was all over.
“It’s a salty taste in your mouth, but it had to be done,” Zarbnisky said. “Canceling was by far the best circumstance for everybody. It is what it is. You can’t go back and change it now.”
Somehow the news got even worse for Zarbnisky after the season was canceled.
Last week, Major League Baseball announced that this summer’s draft will be between 5-10 rounds. It is typically a 40-round affair, and college seniors tend to go in the later rounds because teams can sign them cheaper since they have no leverage to negotiate signing bonuses and contracts.
For a player like Zarbnisky, who wasn’t seen at all by scouts last season and only a handful this year, it was a potentially devastating blow to his career.
“If that doesn’t pan out like I want it to, I either come back next year or have to find a job in the real world,” he told MetroNews last Friday. “I just have to keep playing it by ear.”
On Monday, the NCAA tossed Zarbnisky and his fellow seniors across the country a life preserver. All will be eligible to play again next year.
For a redshirt senior like Zarbnisky, it would effectively work out as an encore to his previously scheduled encore.
Year 4 pt. 3…? ??
— Braden Zarbnisky (@Zarb26) March 30, 2020
WVU coach Randy Mazey said he will welcome all three members of his senior class back with open arms, though he is cautioning them to wait a few weeks before deciding.
“All these seniors who at one point maybe thought their career was over get a reprieve. I know they’re excited about it,” Mazey said on Tuesday’s MetroNews Talkline. “I’ve tried to teach my kids not to make decisions based on emotion. Try to let a little time pass before you decide. If you do have a job outside baseball lined up, sit down and think about what’s best for you.
“Everybody’s situation may be different, especially with how the draft may change.”
Despite the way his last two seasons have ended, Zarbnisky would not change anything about his West Virginia career to this point.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life, getting close to guys I never thought I’d be able to get close to,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in college and better guys to play with. Couldn’t ask for better coaches. It was all-around just fun and exciting.”
And now there’s a chance it will even come with a proper ending.