Bukauskas shut down the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals on May 7, going 8.1 innings with eight strikeouts and just one earned run. (Photo by Joe Bray)
Chapel Hill, NC (May 13, 2016) – Being a first round draft pick, signing a contract potentially worth seven figures, and getting to play professional baseball were all within reach of a budding Stone Bridge pitching prospect in 2014.
JB Bukauskas, however, turned down that incredible opportunity in favor of playing collegiately at the University of North Carolina.
Originally a member of the 2015 Stone Bridge graduating class, the 6-foot, 196-pound right-handed pitcher reclassified and graduated in 2014 after just three years, allowing him to become a Tar Heel one year early. He had, after all, committed to the Tar Heels between his freshman and sophomore year as a Bulldog.
Bukauskas earned a spot in the starting rotation at Stone Bridge as a freshman, a rare accomplishment during Coach Sam Plank’s tenure with the Bulldogs. Not only was he a starter as a freshman, he was named first team all-district.
“Coach Plank was always working with me and did a great job helping me adjust to high school baseball as a freshman,” Bukauskas said, “and has had a lot of influence on my success in baseball even to this day.”
Plank was at the helm for each of Bukauskas’ three years in Ashburn and had been in charge of the Bulldog program since the school opened in 2000, but he stepped down following a victory in the 2015 Virginia 5A state championship to take over the new program at Riverside High. Plank led the Bulldogs to 13 consecutive region tournament appearances before capping off his career with a state title.
“He [Plank] always ran a good program, always a competitive program, had a lot of good players come through there before me,” Bukauskas said. “We had a really good team my last year there, much of it was due to him. He did a great job bringing those players along, especially the younger guys.”
Bukauskas would have been a senior on the state championship team had he not departed one year early for Chapel Hill.
As a junior with the Bulldogs, which was his final year in Ashburn, Bukauskas finished the season with a record of 7-0, piling up 88 strikeouts and did not allow a single earned run. He was the named the pitcher of the year in the district, was first team All-Met, and was the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Virginia.
“Towards the end of the season, there were about 10 to 15 scouts at every start,” he said.
Despite all of his success in his final year as a Bulldog, Bukauskas saw a drop-off in his velocity in the summer between his sophomore and junior year. He actually took some time off from pitching to develop his strength in the gym, gaining 15 to 20 pounds and was fortunate enough to hit a bit of a growth spurt.
That decrease he saw in velocity quickly turned around, as he was able to get his fastball up into the mid-90s on a consistent basis, and even recalls hitting 100 in a game over Spring Break that season.
“The velocity definitely helps,” Bukauskas said, “it gives you a larger margin for error, you don’t have to be so fine because it can get help get the ball by some people and it can also get some soft contact that otherwise the batter could square it up more easily.”
The big transformation is his body and the increased speed certainly garnered the attention of Major League scouts and he was projected a first round pick. Yet, he stuck to his commitment to the Tar Heels and even went to campus one year early, a decision he had made in the summer prior to his junior year.
“My parents were a big influence in me reclassifying, they wanted me to get here to Chapel Hill and get a degree,” Bukauskas said. “And with high school baseball, towards the end of my career I wanted to be challenged a little bit more, so coming to college early seemed like a good idea to me and my family.”
Although he told the local scouts from every team in the MLB to not draft him, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Bukauskas in the 2014 draft with the 600th pick in the 20th round.
“It was kind of nice,” Bukauskas said, “I got a call from the local scout and he said, ‘hey, I know you didn’t want to sign with us but we thought we would still pick you because of all the work we put in with you so we selected you. Good luck with your college career, hopefully we’ll see you down the road.’”
As a freshman at Chapel Hill, Bukauskas saw significant playing time. He began the season as the Sunday starter, but moved into the Saturday slot about halfway through the year due to some injuries. He finished with a record of 5-3 in 14 starts with a 4.09 ERA and 67 strikeouts over 72.2 innings.
“I thought it was a great reward for all the hard work I’ve put in,” he said. “I don’t think I missed a start the entire year, so I got a solid amount of innings for a freshman. A lot of things I learned from last year are paying off this year.”
Now in his sophomore campaign with the Tar Heels, Bukauskas is thriving as the Saturday starter. He has amassed a record of 6-1 in 11 starts with a 2.85 ERA and 94 strikeouts over 66.1 innings. His 12.75 strikeouts per nine innings is good for fifth in the nation.
Most recently, he shut down the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals on May 7, going 8.1 innings with eight strikeouts and just one earned run. The Tar Heels went on to win in a walk-off in the 10th inning.
“I felt like I had everything really going against Louisville,” he said, “the fastball location was there, the change-up I hadn’t been using much all year until that game, I was throwing that in there for strikes, and the slider was on point.”
According to Bukauskas, the UNC coaching staff has really helped him progress. The fastball is his primary pitch, but his slider and change-up are becoming solid pitches for him as well. Unlike at the high school level, both velocity and location are critical in the ACC.
“Pitching in the ACC is nothing like high school,” Bukauskas said. “In high school you’re just throwing the ball to the plate and if you have good velocity guys are going to get out. In the ACC, if you’re not hitting your spots and making good pitches, they’re going to make you pay for it.”
Bukauskas will be eligible for the MLB draft again in 2017, but says that is not his priority right now.
“I’m trying not to think about, I’m just caught up in our season right now and just trying to see what the rest of the season holds for our team, hopefully make the post-season and have a good run,” he said.
With double-digit scouts attending his games in his final season at Stone Bridge, it is likely he will again garner interest from the Major Leagues. He is still young thanks to departing high school early and continues to improve and develop more pitches as a Tar Heel.
“To get a college degree and know that the draft is potentially there after college, that was a big deal with making that decision,” Bukauskas said. “And coming to Chapel Hill, playing three years or four years, whatever I do here, playing ACC baseball is great competition, learning and getting better as a pitcher here I imagine is just as good as going through the minors.”
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