Look at the wall. Standing about five feet away, wearing silky blue T-Shirts and shorts, a pair of lanky right-handers toss baseballs back and forth amid a crowd of teammates. Nobody’s here to watch them now. Not yet.
McKethan Stadium is empty. The season opener is three weeks away, and the pair of righties, zinging throw after throw, looks like everyone else on the field: Anonymous. Talented. Able to throw a baseball in a straight line. But look closer.
Something about these two is different.
On the left, wearing No. 37, is Jackson Kowar, a 6-foot-6, 185-pound native of metropolitan Charlotte, North Carolina. His white socks barely cover his ankles, and his blue undershirt dangles over his elbows. His stubble is reminiscent of a man who’s been meaning to shave but hasn’t gotten around to it, and his arms hang loose like long, twisting noodles. They sway as he waits for his partner to dart the ball back.
On the right, wearing No. 51, is Brady Singer, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound native of rural Eustis, Florida. His dark socks ride up to just below his calf, and his undershirt sleeves are severed above the elbow. He has some light facial hair reminiscent of someone who missed a spot while shaving, although that’s dwarfed by his pale skin and freckles, and his body is rigid and calculated with each throw. He makes sure the ball has arrived, then waits an extra second before snapping out of his throwing pose.
Neither one of them should be here, if anyone should be anywhere. Kowar was supposed to play college baseball elsewhere. Singer was supposed to skip college altogether, and he almost gave up baseball long before he had that option. Yet, they’ve been tossing together since they moved into Springs Residential Complex, back when they’d never met.
“Hey, let me know when you’re here,” Kowar texted Singer as he awaited his new roommate's arrival in the summer of 2015.
“I’m here,” Singer wrote back immediately.
Kowar left their room and entered a maintenance alley behind the complex near some dumpsters and parked scooters. He found Singer waiting in his lifted, blue, gravel-pounding Ford F-150, with fishing poles and camouflage everything stuffed to the windshield in the passenger seat.
“I didn’t know he was such a redneck,” Kowar thought. But he kept that to himself and became fast friends with Singer, despite never indulging in his new roommate’s choice hobbies of fishing, hunting and motocross.
It worked because yes, they’re different. Singer can be quick-tempered and tightly strung. He listens to country music stars Eric Church and Hank Williams, watches the outdoor channel, and his favorite movie is “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
“We joke with him as if he lives in a barn,” former teammate Alex Faedo said, “but he doesn’t.”
Kowar, meanwhile, was described by several friends as a laid-back hipster. He likes wearing tight-fitting pants, listens to all kinds of music and wore a mop of shaggy brown hair in the College World Series.
“He’s very Cali swag hippie,” Faedo added.
But their conflicting interests, personalities and even pitching styles have constructed two of the best arms in college baseball — an impressive feat anywhere, but especially at Florida. The Gators have produced three pitchers — Faedo, A.J. Puk and Dane Dunning — taken in the first round of the MLB Draft in the past two years, and Singer and Kowar could join them this June.
MLB.com ranks Singer as the top prospect in all of amateur baseball entering the 2018 Draft, with Kowar close behind at No. 10. If they stick to those projections, Singer would be the first Florida player to go No. 1 while Kowar’s selection would make them the highest-drafted pair in the 106-year history of UF baseball.
Again, you’d never know watching them long toss. They look like anyone else on the team, at least while warming up with no one around.
That changes tonight. Fans will fill McKethan with Florida slated to open the 2018 season against Siena at 6:30. Singer will be on the mound as Friday night’s starter for the first time, while Kowar will follow on Saturday. Each hopes to contribute meaningful innings to UF’s first-ever national title defense and show Siena’s hitters that, while they long toss and lace their cleats like any other ball players, they pitch like no one the Saints have ever seen.
They’ll tell you they don’t think about the hype, titles, their draft stock or any of it. That they’re just taking it, as the old athlete cliche goes, “one day at a time,” with goals centered on attacking each at-bat and fixing whatever problems arise. And adding to a lineage of prestigious pitchers for which Florida has become known? They really don’t think about that.
But as a spectator, it’s impossible not to wonder. With all the recent success of Florida’s arm arsenal, are these two poised to be the two best of them all?
* * *
Look at the mound. The same mound where Singer stood exactly 249 days ago, rain pelting his face, prepared to face Wake Forest right fielder Keegan Maronpot. The winner of that game advanced to the College World Series, and Singer, as always, wanted the ball. If his team was gonna go to Omaha, dammit if he wasn’t the one to seal it. But the rain poured hard enough to make his cap drip and turn the clay beneath his feet to orange pudding.
The umpire called for a rain delay. That was familiar to Florida. The Gators had already endured two rain delays in the three-game series with the Demon Deacons, which may have contributed to what happened next.
“F***!” Singer yelled as third baseman Jonathan India wrapped his arm around him. The tarp hadn’t reached the grass yet. “Are you f***ing kidding me!”
His f***-laced tirade continued on his trudge to the dugout in short, powerful bursts complete with fist pumping and clawing at the air.
It’s impossible to talk about Singer without mentioning that rain-soaked afternoon. Not only because it’s his most (in)famous moment at Florida, but because it represents what Singer’s teammates and friends say makes him so special.
“Brady would be that kid in the gym class that it doesn’t matter what they’re playing,” his high school coach Matt Burgess said. “He wants to win.”
That explains the tantrum, which wasn’t surprising to those who know him.
“It brings out sometimes the best,” his childhood friend Cody Carroll said, “and sometimes the worst in him.”
He gets the emotion from his dad, Brett, who played baseball and basketball at Lake Sumter Community College and, like his son, played passionately. He gets his competitive spirit from his mom, Jacquelyn, a former baton twirler at UCF who still loves to beat Singer at Parcheesi or Monopoly or Battleship. Any board game, really.
“We sit there and fight with each other to try to win,” Singer said.
That hellfire-spitting temper was displayed in as negative a way possible when Singer melted down against Wake Forest. But the rest of his season — and college career — showed the positive side.
He compiled a 9-5 record as a sophomore with 129 strikeouts — third most in the SEC — and a 3.21 ERA. He has all the intangibles scouts look for: A pair of California redwoods for legs, a fastball that darts and jerks through the zone quickly and a knee-melting slider.
Heck, he was the top pick of the 2015 MLB Draft (56th to the Toronto Blue Jays) to not sign for seven figures and attend college instead. The Tavares Babe Ruth League is so proud to say Singer started his career there that it wrote a story about him and proclaimed the 21-year-old a “hometown baller.”
Baseball America projects him No. 1 overall in this year’s draft — a slot worth nearly $8 million — which would end a storied Florida career that even Carroll, who played with him on travel ball teams and in high school, would be surprised about.
“It’s crazy to think that was a kid I grew up with,” he said.
And even crazier to think Singer almost didn’t give himself a chance to get there.
* * *
Look at the locker. The empty locker, taunting Jackson Kowar day after day after day. It’s a varsity locker, although not his varsity locker, at Charlotte Christian School. He’d played junior varsity as a freshman, and even by his coach’s admission, he never stood out. “Athletic,” coach Greg Simmons called him, but “nothing that would wow you.” Especially not with a pencil-limbed 5-foot-9 frame.
“We didn’t really think much of him as a baseball player,” former teammate and current North Carolina State offensive lineman Garrett Bradbury said.
But heading into his sophomore year, Kowar grew. He grew and grew and grew, and he entered the season still lanky as ever, but he stood at 6-foot-2.
Around the time of his growth spurt, Simmons got a call from a college coach and longtime friend.
“Hey,” the coach said, “have you seen the Kowar kid pitch?”
“A little bit,” Simmons answered.
“Well,” the coach told him, “you need to see him again.”
Simmons invited Kowar to work out with the varsity players that November. His workout included a bullpen session, where Kowar slung fastballs in the range of 86-88 mph and altered the pace with a swing-and-miss changeup. It took eight pitches.
“Ok Jackson, that’s good,” Simmons told Kowar. “You can go ahead and put your stuff in the varsity locker room.”
But Kowar didn’t believe he’d made the team. He took his equipment home night after night until Simmons’ son Matt, Charlotte Christian’s team captain, stepped in.
“Dad, you’ve gotta tell Jackson he’s on the team,” Matt said. “He thinks he’s just kinda gonna play JV and varsity back and forth.”
Simmons approached Kowar immediately.
“Son, your number is 13,” he said, which Kowar attributes to a “tall, skinny guy” before him wearing No. 13. “Here’s the bio that I already wrote in the media guide. Don’t take your stuff home anymore.”
Kowar couldn’t hold back the rising corners of his mouth.
“Really?” he asked with a smile.
Simmons knew Kowar could be the next great athlete to emerge from a school that knows great athletes. NBA superstar Stephen Curry graduated from Charlotte Christian, as did former MLB pitcher Daniel Bard, who was coached by Simmons.
The ball, Simmons explained, rocketed from Kowar’s hand the same way it did from Bard’s. And like Singer, Kowar loved to compete. He had to right away.
He closed games as a sophomore, and in the state championship finale, Kowar emerged from the bullpen needing to get two outs for the title. The final out was a dribbler to Bradbury, who stepped on first and initiated a dog pile on Kowar. It was the first of several for the future phenom.
“I learned my lesson,” Kowar said. “I learned how to go flat on the bottom of the pile and not get smooshed.”
Colleges noticed Kowar’s success, and by the end of his sophomore year, he’d committed to Clemson. He remembered watching the Tigers compete in the College World Series in 2010. He’d wanted to be a part of the team then, so when the offer came, he pounced.
He spent the next two years sure of where he was headed and focused only on pitching. Although unlike Singer, he lacked edginess.
“He was never too intense unless he was pitching,” said teammate John Turley, who now plays receiver for the Butler Bulldogs football team.
“I wouldn’t say he really showed any emotion on the mound,” said former teammate Bailey Lewis, now an outfielder at Catholic University of America.
“He’s just kind of a normal dude,” said former teammate and childhood friend Nick Owens, now an infielder at Virginia Tech.
A normal dude who likes wearing beachy shoes, tight pants and hats.
“I don’t wanna call him hipster,” Bradbury said, struggling to find the right words, “but he’s kinda like, metro?”
He started playing baseball — well, he doesn’t really remember when. His first team was a T-Ball club at Mint Hill Little League, but his dad is a former minor league player, so he was holding a ball in his hand before his baby teeth arrived. He actually can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing baseball. He started out as a shortstop.
“Then I got too tall and skinny for that,” he said in his typical self-deprecating way. “Plus I can’t hit.”
That work as a young player culminated years later with another state championship as a senior at Charlotte Christian. This time he was the team’s ace, and he carried a seven-run lead against High Point Wesleyan Christian into the seventh and final inning.
The now 6-foot-4 fireballer stepped off the mound and inhaled before facing what he realized could be his last hitter before donning Clemson’s purple and orange. He looked around the stadium, stepped back on and finished the game — a 14-strikeout, three-hit shutout — to unleash another dogpile on the mound.
Days later he texted his future Clemson roommates.
“Who’s bringing the TV?” he asked.
* * *
Look at the marshmallows. Yes, the marshmallows. Old, crusty and dry, they’re wedged between sofa cushions or wilting under a recliner. Carroll and Singer often found them long after using them to play marshmallow baseball, where they swung bat-shaped trophies at puffed sugar balls around Carroll’s home.
“We’d wind up not even cleaning up the marshmallows and just leave ‘em there for months,” he said.
The duo partook in similar mischief throughout their years of friendship. They jumped off Singer’s balcony into his pool. They pelted Singer’s brother, Brandon, with fallen oranges as he rode his bike on the family’s acreage. They once decided to rollerblade in Carroll’s house, with Singer wearing skates and Carroll pulling him along the tile with a wiffle ball bat. Singer fell, and his foot penetrated the living room wall.
“Oh my gosh,” Carroll, who now pitches for Southern Miss, thought. “My parents are gonna kill me.”
Their solution? Place a box over the hole. It took Carroll’s parents four-and-a-half months to notice.
“It was definitely worth it,” Carroll said. “It was a good time.”
By the time he was 12, Singer was one of the top shortstops in central Florida along with Brendan Rodgers, who was eventually drafted third overall in 2015 by the Colorado Rockies. Matt Burgess, who coached Singer for three years at Tavares High School, met him around this time when he coached the Lake County Thunder.
“He’s always had that fiery side to him that everybody got to see when they had to pull him out of the Wake Forest game.” Burgess said of his first impressions. “He’s kinda always had that fire.”
And sometimes, he got burned.
Playing for the Central Florida Diamond Force, Carroll remembers, Singer moved to the outfield. He’d drop a fly ball, get upset and play ineffective baseball for the rest of the afternoon. The transition coincided with Singer entering what Carroll called his “redneck stage” — a stage he hasn’t grown out of — where his life-sized John Smoltz and Chipper Jones cutouts were complemented by tackle boxes, guns and camo. Singer grew up hunting doves, deer, hogs and turkeys as well as fishing for bass, but he got especially into his hobbies during this time. Coupled with his frustrations on the diamond, he thought about giving up baseball to hunt and fish.
Carroll said Singer lost touch with the game. That after playing year-round for most of his life, he was tired of wearing clay-stained pants and carrying around a dusty sack of leather and metal. But Carroll, along with another friend named Jeremy Migliori, refused to let him.
“You don’t need time off,” they told him. “This is baseball. This is what we grew up on.”
Singer, after a month or so, eventually agreed. He led his team to a tournament victory when he returned.
Singer transitioned to a full-time pitcher when he started playing travel ball for Chet Lemon’s Juice, an elite program in central Florida that has produced major league all-stars Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Zack Greinke.
“That’s really,” Burgess said, “where he began to shine.”
The average freshman, according to Burgess, throws 78-81 mph. Singer could throw 85-86, and it showed early. In his first action for the Bulldogs, he tossed five shutout innings in a preseason game against Freedom High School.
Burgess knew he had a star, and it continued to shine as years passed. But his favorite memory of Singer on the mound was early in his career, when Tavares took on cross-town rival Eustis in the regular season.
Eustis, a Lake County powerhouse, was the heavy favorite when the capacity crowd assembled at the Fred Stover Sports Complex under the bright lights and dark skies of small-town baseball. Singer, then still a freshman, was matched up against Eustis junior Alex Hagner, who eventually played for Florida as well.
But it wasn’t because of Singer. He pitched nine innings, threw 99 pitches and his team lost 1-0 on an error.
“He’s always known that he’s good at what he does,” Burgess said. “He’s great at it. But maybe that opened his eyes.”
His junior year, the Tavares offense was slumping when Singer approached Burgess.
“Coach, let me play the field,” he begged. “Let me hit. Let me do things to help the team.”
Burgess plugged him in at third base when he wasn’t pitching, and he started getting hits in just about every game.
Burgess left Tavares after that season, and Singer transferred to Eustis for his senior year as a result. He dominated, posting an 8-3 record with a 1.25 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 67 innings. On draft night, a group of family and friends assembled at his house on the evening of June 8, 2015, to drink, play cornhole and see where he might go. He was committed to play at Florida, but he wasn’t planning on going if he got picked high enough.
He’d told Carroll that if Florida State’s D.J. Stewart got selected before the Yankees picked at No. 30, they were going to choose him. The Orioles took Stewart at No. 25. Carroll started pacing and yelping around the house.
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
“DJ Stewart just got picked up,” he answered. “Brady, have your phone ready.”
But the Yankees never called. Carroll’s elation was premature, and Singer slid to the Blue Jays at No. 56. It was still plenty satisfying with a slot bonus valued at just over $1.1 million. Singer hugged Carroll before anyone else.
“It was just a great moment,” Carroll said. “This kid that I grew up with, who had buck teeth and used to suck on his thumb when he slept, got picked up.”
Singer, of course, never made it to the Blue Jays organization. It was rumored that he didn’t sign because of medical issues, and Carroll confirmed that. His physical was inconclusive, he explained, and the Blue Jays didn’t want to pay him what they’d agreed to as a result.
Singer said he chose to attend Florida because he saw the opportunity to become a more “complete pitcher,” and whether he was disappointed about it at the time or not, he has no regrets now. And why would he? Everything has turned out like coach Kevin O’Sullivan told him it would when trying to convince him to attend UF.
“Don’t worry about school,” O’Sullivan told him. “Everything is gonna work out.
* * *
Look at the coach. Graying, knowledgeable 61-year-old Jack Leggett, Clemson’s head baseball coach. He’d led the Tigers since 1994, with two ACC titles, three ACC Coach of the Year awards and six College World Series appearances. He had his next star pitcher in Jackson Kowar, who sported Clemson hoodies, T-Shirts and caps regularly, ready to attend.
Jack got fired.
Clemson’s brass released him after his team finished 32-29 in 2015. They also enabled Kowar to go elsewhere. The NCAA voided his letter of intent given the circumstances.
He was playing around at his high school field when he found out. He’d heard rumors, but to happen like this, a mere week before he was slated to start classes?
“That was pretty devastating,” he said, “just having my whole life pretty much chopped down right in front of me.”
But thanks to the rumors, he was prepared. He considered three schools — LSU, Vanderbilt and Florida — with the Gators securing his final official visit. He was hosted by infielder Jonathan India and met Faedo, then a rising sophomore who spent his freshman year as a weekend starter, and he became enchanted. Walking through the McKethan Stadium’s bullpen — the same bullpen where future major leaguers Paco Rodriguez and Darren O’Day once shuffled their cleats and slingshotted pitches — was enough to convince him. He committed to UF.
His first action for the Gators came on Sunday of opening weekend against Florida Gulf Coast. Kowar entered with a 10-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth. His face flushed red as he trotted to the mound from the hollowed ‘pen, and he said he felt like he was throwing the hardest he’d ever thrown.
FGCU didn’t care.
The Eagles smacked three hits and scored two runs, which placed Kowar’s ERA after his first appearance at 18.00.
He pitched in relief again three days later against Eastern Michigan, where he allowed no runs and one hit over two innings. He was ready.
He made his first start a week later against UCF and tossed five scoreless frames to earn his first collegiate win. Kowar had arrived.
He finished the season with 12 appearances — six of them starts — a 3.37 ERA and a 3-0 record. He followed his freshman campaign by going 12-1 as a sophomore, which tied him for the second-most wins in the nation. It was unclear if he’d be that effective after suffering an unusual injury in the middle of 2016. It started with a cramp in his chest.
He tried to stretch it, and when it still hurt, he saw a trainer. He knew this pain. He’d felt it before.
One of his lungs collapsed in high school. Only about 5-10 percent, but that was enough to cause discomfort. The condition, he said, was brought on by his above-average height and lack of weight.
The lung was repaired surgically, and Kowar was back at practice, he said, in a week or two. Now he faced the same problem with the other lung.
Once again, doctors knocked him out, stuck a scope down his torso and glued the collapsed lung to his chest.
“I’m not sure what goes into it,” he said in his usual laid-back way, “but that’s what they told me, and I said, ‘Aight.’”
But this time he couldn’t come back. Florida mandated rest, and he didn’t return for the rest of the season after the mid-April incident. He missed out on contributing to Florida’s losing effort in the College World Series.
The next year, his lungs were of adequate size and strength when Florida returned to Omaha. He helped the Gators reach the finals, where they needed one last win over LSU to clinch.
O’Sullivan turned to Kowar with his team up by one in the eighth to bail out usual closer Michael Byrne. Kowar inherited runners on first and third with one out.
LSU’s Greg Deichmann lunged at his first pitch, sending a sharp ground ball to the right side of the infield. Florida first baseman JJ Schwarz grabbed it and threw out the runner at home for the inning’s second out. Kowar finished the inning with a line out to center field. Three outs left.
In Atlanta, Simmons watched from his bed at a Marriott hotel. He was planning to fly to Omaha the next day to see the final game of the series, but now he knew there would be no final game. With Kowar on the mound, Florida was going to clinch the series that night.
“I might’ve been the only person pulling for him,” Simmons said, “that wasn’t nervous at all.”
UF scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth, so Kowar had a cushion. He didn’t need one.
He forced a ground ball that, for Florida, seemed to shake the Earth itself on his 14th pitch of the night. He’d once again ignited a sweaty hill of bodies and emotion, with him at the bottom.
He stood after freeing himself from the mess and found his roommate, Brady Singer. They hugged and swayed and patted each other’s backs as fireworks popped in the background and streamers rained.
Back in Atlanta, Simmons jumped on the bed until the white linens dangled off the frame. He reached for his phone and texted Kowar.
“I’m so proud of you,” it read.
Look at the spit. Not dripping or thudding to the ground in a bubbly mush, but zipping through the air like a shooting star, unaffected by gravity, and landing in a splash. That’s baseball player spit alright, and it’s an art Singer has perfected. Like his pitching, spitting with dignity is meticulous and structured, and he does it often and well.
Kowar doesn’t spit as much. At least not by the standards of baseball players. He does, however, come from a high school culture where lockers had to be clean or their coach would, in his words, “run the piss out of ‘em.” He keeps his locker tidy to this day: shoes at the top, hats in the cubby and his five gloves at the bottom.
“I think your locker actually reflects a lot about you,” he said. “I’d rather people come into the locker room and see my locker organized rather than messy.”
Locker neatness and major league spitting are very different topics, just like Singer and Kowar are very different pitchers and people — Singer with his slider and guns, Kowar with his changeup and bucket hats. O’Sullivan called them the “odd couple.” But the result, despite the differences, is the same. Greatness at spitting, greatness at locker tidiness.
Greatness on the mound.
Sophomore Keenan Bell learned that quickly when he arrived in Gainesville a year ago.
“Against those guys you really want to lock it in because those are the best arms that you’re going to see,” he said. “So if you can compete against those two, you can compete against anybody.”
He couldn’t compete at first. He doesn’t remember the first time he faced each one, but he can say with some certainty how those at-bats ended.
“I’m pretty sure,” he joked, “they both ended in strikeouts.”
Bell’s sentiments could be said about many Florida pitchers over the last three years, even beyond first-rounders Faedo, Dunning and Puk. There was Logan Shore, who was selected in the second round by the Athletics in 2016; Shaun Anderson, who was selected in the third round by the Red Sox; Scott Moss, who was selected in the fourth round by the Reds; Kirby Snead, who was selected in the 10th round by the Blue Jays. Going back even further, righty Jonathan Crawford went in the first round in 2013, as did lefty Brian Johnson in 2012.
Singer and Kowar could best them all with strong 2018 seasons.
O’Sullivan said they have their chance friendship to thank, especially going into this year. It goes back to a conversation he had with them when they started at Florida.
“You guys can go to bed at night, or sit around your apartment or dorm,” he remembers telling them, “and you guys can be talking to each other about that third pitch.”
It took two years, but O’Sullivan said Kowar can finally sling a swing-and-miss slider while Singer can offer an elbow-freezing changeup. So if they were good before, now they have the potential to be better.
It’s like playing poker. Kowar is an ace of spades, Singer an ace of diamonds. Different, but with the same value.
And together, they form a winning hand.