Brian Miller knew all about J.B. Bukauskas’ mighty fastball, and about his dancing slider, too. Yet it wasn’t necessarily those two pitches that most stuck with Miller, the North Carolina junior center fielder, when he faced Bukauskas during an intrasquad scrimmage back in the fall.
“What really got me,” Miller, an All-ACC player and one of the Tar Heels’ best hitters, said on Thursday, “is when he got a change-up this year.”
Indeed, Bukauskas, the 6-foot junior right-hander who could soon become a first-round major league draft pick, had always been known for his fastball. His slider has long troubled opposing hitters, as well.
It’s the development of a consistently deceptive change-up, though, that has completed his arsenal and has left his teammates empathizing with those who encounter the unenviable task of trying to hit against Bukauskas. On Friday night in the NCAA tournament, Davidson will take its turn.
“Yeah, definitely feel bad for Davidson, having to face him,” Miller said of the Wildcats’ task against Bukauskas, who earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors. “Glad we don’t have to face him anymore in intrasquads.”
The Tar Heels, the tournament’s No. 2 seed and the host of the Chapel Hill regional, are beginning on Friday what they hope will be a weeks-long journey to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. First, though, are the Wildcats, the No. 4 seed in the four-team regional.
UNC coach Mike Fox could have elected to wait to use Bukauskas, who hasn’t been credited with a defeat this season. The postseason offers that kind of flexibility, and determining the most appropriate way to align a pitching staff is arguably the most important part of the strategy.
For Fox, it didn’t turn out to be a difficult decision: Bukauskas would start the first tournament game.
“Well, I mean, he’s 9-0, so I think we’ve won every Friday game but one, I think, this year – one or two,” Fox said of Bukauskas, UNC’s regular Friday night starter. “So we’ve gotten off to a good start, and it’s one reason we’re staying like we are. You have to get off to a good start in this tournament.”
Bukauskas offers as close of a sure-thing assurance of a good start, both in a literal and figurative sense, as there is in college baseball. In his 14 starts this season, he has allowed but 20 earned runs. During his 89 innings, he has ended nearly twice as many at-bats with strikeouts (111) as he has allowing a hit (56).
Ask about the single most important factor in Bukauskas’ success, and Fox is likely to talk about the slider, and how it “just took another jump.” And yet it’s more than that one pitch. It’s also the change-up, an improved mental approach and perhaps a decreased reliance on the overpowering fastball.
“We had to come up with another pitch, actually two more pitches,” Fox said. “So his change-up is better. I think mentally he’s better. But I think the slider, when it’s there, is another weapon, and it’s a plus pitch for him. It’s not just an average one.”
Nothing has been average this season for Bukauskas, who’s perhaps in the midst of UNC’s best individual pitching season since Kent Emanuel in 2012. Emanuel also earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors that season, and was a centerpiece of teams that were among the best in the nation.
The individual success isn’t new for Bukauskas. But the team success is. None of his teammates has ever played in an NCAA tournament game at Boshamer Stadium. Fox on Thursday spoke with pleasure about watching his players take in the build-up to hosting an NCAA tournament regional.
Bukauskas, meanwhile, has never pitched in any NCAA tournament game. Speaking earlier this week, he said he didn’t anticipate anything changing, for him, and that he’d plan to “keep the same mentality.”
“That’s how you’ve got to think about it if you want to be successful,” he said. “You want to kind of keep doing what’s been working.”
There hasn’t been much, if anything, that hasn’t worked for him this season. After he earned second-team All-ACC honors last season, Bukauskas reacquainted himself with his change-up over the summer, and became more comfortable with the pitch.
It remains “a work in progress,” he said, and he described it as a “feel pitch.”
“So one day you’ll have it,” he said. “One day you won’t.”
The fastball and slider, meanwhile, have remained devastating constants. They are two of the reasons, but not the only ones, why Bukauskas has become one of the nation’s best college pitchers, and why he’s starting the Tar Heels’ first NCAA tournament game in three seasons.
Of the 14 games Bukauskas has started this season, UNC has won all but two. His teammates, who don’t particularly enjoy the specter of facing Bukauskas during those scrimmages, take solace in his presence on the mound on game nights.
“When you’ve got a guy like that,” Fox said, “I think they feel like if he throws like he’s capable, which he has most of the year, we’re going to have a pretty doggone good chance of winning.”
UNC vs. Davidson
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill