If Connor Jones had been more interested in his bank account than he was about enjoying at least some of the college experience, he could be heading to pro-baseball spring training.
Though he's not getting paid to play baseball this spring, Jones is in the right place. In just a few months at Virginia, where he'll start the season as either the Cavaliers' No. 4 or No. 5 starter or as a member of the bullpen, he's learned more than he thought was possible in such a short period of time.
"Mentally, high school to college is a big difference I didn't quite expect," said Jones, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander from Great Bridge High in Chesapeake who had a 22-3 career record in high school with a 1.68 earned run average.
"I think it's a world of difference how far I've come in three months or so. It's been very, very educational."
When draft week came last June, Jones wasn't exactly an afterthought — the San Diego Padres took him in the 21st round — but he'd already informed major-league scouts a month earlier he had every intention of heading to U.Va. Just on talent alone, he was considered a prospect with the potential to be drafted as early as late first round, but he put an end to that kind of talk with his decision to go to college.
At the very least, the Padres understood what they were getting into when they selected him. The odds were slim of getting him to sign as a 21st-round pick, and San Diego apparently didn't push too hard.
"They're not as evil as people make them out to be," said Jones regarding major-league teams. "I mean, they're very understanding about it. It's not like they were mad at me or upset for any decision I was going to make."
Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said some of the emphasis while prepping Jones has been on getting him more comfortable with his change-up and working on the consistency of his slider — pitches he'll be required to throw when the count isn't necessarily in Jones' favor.
"He's been blessed from above with the kind of arm that he has," O'Connor said. "You can't teach somebody that ability. When you're in high school, you become conditioned to standing up there and you're able to throw the ball by 95 percent of the high school hitters you face. You don't have that luxury at this level of college baseball."
For a young pitcher expected to make an early impact, Jones has the perfect mentor in sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell. He didn't arrive in Charlottesville with the same credentials as Jones, but Waddell made his freshman season a memorable one.
Waddell, who went 6-3 last season with a 3.96 ERA, ended up holding down the coveted Friday night starting spot all season for U.Va. He'll be the starter Friday when U.Va., which is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America and Perfect Game, opens its season in Wilmington, N.C., against Kentucky.
"It's pretty amazing how fast he adapted, picked up the system and then the whole mental approach that they want us to think," said Jones, who was the Gatorade state player of the year last season after going 10-1 with a 0.00 ERA in the regular season.
As far as that mental approach is concerned, it's about developing a full repertoire to successfully get hitters out, while putting speed and power on the backburner.
"We focus more on location," said Waddell, who will have sophomores Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz behind him to start the season in the No. 2 and No. 3 slots in the rotation, respectively, while Jones may compete with senior Artie Lewicki and freshman Jack Roberts for the remaining rotation spots. "We feel as if someone can throw 96 or 98 miles per hour, but if it's not where it needs to be, it can still get hit."
After taking last summer off from organized baseball for the first time in what he termed "forever," Jones came to U.Va. with a live arm prepared to work. Now, he's ready to show just how much he's embraced a thinking man's slant on pitching.
"I always felt relatively comfortable pitching instead of just throwing, but in every part of the game mentally and just pitching, it's elevated in college as opposed to high school," Jones said. "It's definitely more serious."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.