There is nothing that gets under Phoenix Sanders’ skin quite like losing.
From pitching under the bright lights on Friday nights to playing cards with his teammates in the locker room, the Bulls junior pitcher has only one thing on his mind: just win.
“When we were little, the guys I grew up with were super competitive so when we would lose, we’d end up getting in fights with each other because no one wanted to lose,” Sanders said. “If it was a bang-bang call in whiffle ball, everyone would be screaming. So I grew up just hating losing.”
To this day, Sanders’ competitive fire still burns bright, as teammate Tommy Eveld has witnessed on a regular occasion.
“It happens every day,” Eveld said. “We play a lot of cards, a game similar to spades. If he’s winning or losing, he’s yelling because he’s just that into the game.”
Sanders soon put that energy into baseball, playing on travel teams before eventually attending Buchholz High School in Gainesville.
In his time at Buchholz, Sanders was a two-year letter winner, winning seven games in his senior season with a 0.55 ERA.
As a senior, he led his team to the district semifinals, but the loss he took in that game is still one that sticks with him — adding fuel to his fiery hatred of losing.
Sanders pitched the entire game for his team, giving up four runs, three of which were unearned. His team lost 5-4, ending his high school career and chance of a state title.
“The team we played, they were like the number two team in the state and we were not even close, we weren’t supposed to win,” Sanders said. “That’s how I ended my high school career was losing. Of course I wasn’t expecting to win state, but it was a game we should have won so it’s kind of just bugged me.
“It’s in the past, but some days it irks me when I see stuff from high school and I’m just like, ‘Man, if only we won that game, what could have happened?’”
Despite his success at Buchholz, the 5-foot-10, 135-pound Sanders didn’t have the size many Division I scouts look for in pitchers.
“I was just naïve; I didn’t think I needed (the weight),” Sanders said. “I’ve always had success so why do I need it? I was throwing 85-86 (mph) and still getting guys out, so I didn’t think I needed to make a jump.”
With no D-I offers on the table, Sanders had to choose between committing to his education or continuing his baseball career.
His parents advised him to focus on education, as a junior college degree isn’t regarded as highly as a four-year degree from a university. But Sanders, refusing to give up on his passion, chose to enroll at Daytona State College.
Sanders worked tirelessly in the gym in his two years there and began to see the results. His weight bumped up and his fastball, which he would throw around 85 mph, began to tick higher and higher on the radar gun.
By the time Sanders was finished at Daytona State, he left weighing just shy of 180 pounds and with the ability to throw up to 91 mph.
Several D-I schools called to offer Sanders that fall in 2015, and he settled on USF after his visit.
“I thought he was a guy that would be able to step in the door and contribute right away,” USF recruiting coordinator Mike Current said. “I think certainly up to this point, he’s fulfilled my expectations for sure.”
It wasn’t long after joining the Bulls that Sanders’ competitive spirit was reignited with new purpose.
“When Ryan (Valdes) broke his finger at the beginning of this semester when they started putting everyone in their roles, you could just see a fire in Phoenix that he had an opportunity to throw on Friday night and he wasn’t going to let that opportunity slip by,” Eveld said. “He just had a spark in him.”
Sanders earned the ace role shortly before the season and has excelled thus far, owning a 2-1 record with a 1.85 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 39 innings.
“He came in to be part of a group of pitchers we would consider and he’s pitched well enough to be our Friday night guy,” USF coach Mark Kingston said. “He’s a big competitor. He has a very good fastball command and he has a breaking pitch that’s a very good swing-and-miss pitch.”
While Sanders maintains a steady focus on the mound, Eveld said he’s anything but that as soon as he steps foot in the dugout.
“He’s a goofball,” Eveld said. “He always wants to joke around, always laughing. When he steps in between the lines, he’s a different monster.”
Sanders, who has three siblings who also bear names of cities (Dallas, 11, Hudson, 7, Brooklyn, 4), has a personality as unique as his name according to Current.
“He’s a little quirky, in a good way,” Current said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t take himself too seriously and likes to keep things loose. He’s definitely a little different — he’s a lot more relaxed and laid back when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.”
On the mound, Sanders operates in a rhythm free of emotion. He works quickly, allowing a brief moment before rocking back into his windup again and again.
In his last start, he pitched a complete-game shutout against Dartmouth that was finished in less than two hours. His effort earned him AAC Pitcher of the Week and an early night for everyone at the ballpark.
“When I’m at my best and just going, going, going, that’s when I know I can just feel stuff coming out,” Sanders said. “I just stay middle, never get too high or too low, pitch emotionless.”
Sanders hasn’t personally had to suffer much losing this season, with just one loss on his record, but with USF owning a 14-11 record, he has surely had his share of frustration.
If his last start is any indication, he won’t have to cope with much losing this season.
“I just can’t stand it, I just don’t like losing,” Sanders said. “That means you’re better than me at something and if someone is better than me at something, I should have drive to be better than them.”