Long journey to the hill
Lora Borup could hardly believe her eyes.
Sitting in the stands at famed Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., last June, a glance to the bullpen revealed a sight that shifted her heart rate into overdrive.
Lora's son Jake, a then-redshirt freshman pitcher, was warming up, perhaps preparing to enter a game on the biggest stage of his life: The College World Series.
“I thought I was going to lose my lunch,” Lora Borup said. “I called my sister and said, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re warming him up,’ and then I hung up.”
With her insides churning, Lora watched as Jake, the middle child among a trio of boys, loosened his arm up in the ’pen, absorbing all the nervous energy her son may have been feeling at the time.
But then Jake sat down. It wasn’t his time yet. And that was OK with his mother.
“Moms live and die with every pitch,” Lora Borup said.
She knew there were still plenty of pitches to come.
Destined to be a Sun Devil
For Jake Borup, it seems like it’s been a long time since he first draped the maroon and gold jersey over what were then a narrow set of shoulders — a jersey he had been hoping most of his life to wear.
In his current “sophomore” season, the now 22-year-old 6-foot-5, 203-pound pitcher has been perhaps the most solid starter on a rotation without a blemish on its record.
Borup has begun the season — one that features a 20-0 record by the No. 1 Sun Devils, the second-best start in school history — with a 5-0 record coupled with a 2.42 earned run average, lowest among the team’s starters.
Not bad numbers by sophomore standards. And Borup is not your typical sophomore.
“I feel like I’ve been a part of this program for a long time,” said Borup as he sits in the dugout in gym shorts and flip flops, a smile slowly climbing up his face. “I’ve grown up around Sun Devil baseball … It’s been a privilege to play here and a privilege to be a part of.”
Borup’s story at ASU began in 2005. After playing just two seasons of high-school ball at Mountain View High School in Mesa, he was only recruited locally.
First UA came calling, a tough pill to swallow for Lora Borup, who has worked in the ASU football office for the better part of the last decade.
“I was dying,” Lora Borup said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’ll only come to the games you’re pitching, and I can’t cheer for the Wildcats.’ When ASU called we were celebrating, because he’s always wanted to be a Sun Devil.”
Borup enrolled at ASU in the fall of 2005 and decided to redshirt during the ensuing spring baseball campaign.
Putting dreams on hold
In the middle of his first season on the team, one in which he could only practice with his teammates, Borup decided to answer a higher calling.
He shed the maroon and gold practice uniform for a white dress shirt and tie, accepting a Mormon mission call in Charleston, W. Va.
The mission stretched Borup, he said, both physically and mentally. With days full of scripture studying and Gospel sharing that began at dawn and ended well after the sun rested below the horizon, life lessons were gathered in abundance.
“He had matured, and you see that with all missionaries,” Lora said. “He left a young man, but he came back a solid, mature man ready to take on life.”
As if serving a two-year mission across the country wasn’t enough, Borup was also called to serve as Spanish-speaking missionary.
Considering he had quit a Spanish class in eighth grade because it was “too hard,” the Mesa native was nervous at first about the undertaking, but he considered it an opportunity to test himself.
“When you take on a goal or an assignment, it kind of helps you see other aspects of life,” Borup said. “It took me a while to conquer Spanish, but now I’ve gotten that and I’m going to continue to go forward with something else. I couldn’t tell you I loved Spanish when I started, but I’m thankful I’ve had it since I got home.”
With his new language down, Borup threw himself into his missionary work, consumed by a desire to share his faith with others. But thoughts of being back with his team crept into his mind from time to time. How could they not? Being a Sun Devil had been a lifelong dream.
When ASU made its run to the College World Series in 2007, Lora would send Jake newspaper clippings and articles about the team. Sometimes he would walk into a restaurant and say to one of his mission companions, “Hey, that’s my team playing.”
“[The mission] was a great experience, and obviously I would never take it back, but there were times I thought about baseball a lot,” Borup said. “I missed it, but you’ve just got to put that in the back of your mind.”
A missionary family
While missions can be tough work for the young men who embark on them, they can also be trying for the families of the missionaries. Phone calls come just twice a year — one on Mother’s Day and the other on Christmas — and e-mails can be sent weekly.
But Lora Borup, a single mother who moved with her three sons to Mesa from California when Jake was 6, has seen them all go on missions, and she knew what it would do for Jake.
“A mission is mentally hard,” she said. “That toughens a young person up and helps develop so many wonderful qualities. … I think the mission did all positive things for him.”
Borup said the mission did something else for him as well. It made him fully appreciate what his mother had provided for him and his brothers — the opportunities that were made available and the unending support she continues to rain upon them.
“I never really got an idea of what she had done for my family until I was out on my mission,” Borup said. “I realized as I was out on my own providing for myself what an amazing job she did. Growing up, she inspired me … Seeing her support me the way she did just made the transition back to baseball so much easier.”
Jake has also had the support of his two brothers, the older Jeff and the younger Josh.
Jake is four years younger than Jeff but was always eager to prove himself as an athletic equal to his older brother’s friends.
“I think Jeff broke Jake’s nose a couple times by being rough and playing and everything, so they can compete that way,” Lora Borup said. “But they had a ‘boy, don’t pick on my brother’-type syndrome.”
Added Jake: “[Jeff and I] were always growing up arguing who was better at what. … I thank him, because he always encouraged me to become a better person.”
Back to baseball
To say Borup was excited to return to the diamond following his mission would be an understatement.
Arriving home on a Saturday in July 2008, he used Sunday to relax, reunite with friends and family and attend church.
But on Monday, it was time to get back to work.
“The first thing I did when I got back was meet with the coaching staff and make sure everything was good to come back,” Borup said. “That Monday and Tuesday, and the rest of the work week on, I just tried to get back into baseball shape. Obviously, it was one of the first things I wanted to do when I got back.”
Borup, who grew an inch and gained 30 pounds while on his mission, knew the task in front of him was a tall one. While he was able to keep up his conditioning during exercise time on his mission, getting his arm back to its earlier form was a challenge.
Borup threw just eight innings in his first season back with the Sun Devils, and while he admitted that it was frustrating at times to not be able to contribute more, he said the limited work was valuable.
“Of course you’re disappointed when you can’t help your team out as much as you think you can,” Borup said. “However, I was fortunate to get in the innings I did. It taught me a lot about college baseball and the speed of the game. Those eight innings taught me a lot.”
After experiencing a trip to Omaha with a talented team last season, Borup said he was determined to make an impact when the next season rolled around.
“I just remember him saying, ‘I’m going to work really hard,’” Lora Borup said. “[He said], ‘I’m going to do my best and do my part, and we’ll see how it goes.’”
It has gone well for Borup, who will go for his sixth win of the season during ASU’s Pac-10-opening series with California this weekend.
After biding his time for the past five years, Borup is realizing the potential people like ASU interim coach Tim Esmay saw in the young right-hander before he even stepped on the mound in Tempe.
“I was at University of Utah, so I’ve seen [that] with pitchers that go on missions — it always takes them a year to get back into throwing shape,” Esmay said. “I knew watching him go through his struggles last year that he would have his opportunity the following year.”
The journey to the hill has been a long one for Borup. But while he is beginning to reap the rewards of his dedication to his craft and the sacrifices he’s made, the charismatic pitcher says he’s just getting started.
“If you told me last season I’d be where I’m at at this point, I’d probably say ‘That’s incredible,’” Borup said. “But at the same point, as I’ve gone through it, I feel like I could be doing a lot better. I feel like I have a lot of improvement to do.”
Sounds like that journey is far from over.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org