During his three years of playing varsity baseball at Stone Bridge High School, right-handed pitcher J.B. Bukauskas found he could generally have success with his superior level of talent. When he needed to get an out, he just reared back and fired his 95 mile per hour fastball past the hitter.
Bukauskas is learning that is not always the case at the collegiate level. But he is adapting quickly as a freshman at the University of North Carolina and is finding success with the Tar Heels.
North Carolina is 22-14 overall (through April 12), 9-9 and tied for second in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Bukauskas is among the team leaders in most categories as the season approaches its final month.
The 6-foot, 189-pound Ashburn native is 3-1 with a 2.68 earned run average in his first nine starts, pacing the Tar Heels in games started and innings pitched (53.2) while ranking second in strikeouts (48), ERA and wins. Bukauskas has pitched at least five innings in eight of his nine starts and has allowed two or fewer earned runs in seven outings. He also boasts a minuscule .215 batting average against him.
“I love it so far,” Bukauskas said. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a lot of what I expected – good competition that’s challenging me and maybe a little better than I expected. I wanted to play right away coming in and I’ve had the ability to do that.”
Bukauskas has settled into a role as one of North Carolina’s top three pitchers and is a starting pitcher for one of the team’s three conference games each weekend. Tar Heel head coach Mike Fox made the announcement a few days before Carolina opened its season against Seton Hall in mid-February and Bukauskas was pleased he had earned the honor.
“I just worked hard and honestly thought I had it,” Bukauskas said of earning the spot in the weekend rotation. “I wasn’t going to be too upset if I didn’t get it because I knew the other guys had done just as good a job, but I was happy to earn that spot.”
Bukauskas was one of the top recruits in North Carolina’s 2015 freshman class, which was ranked sixth nationally by Baseball America. The hard-throwing right-hander was 21-3 with an ERA under 1.00 during his three prep campaigns and he struck out 274 batters. Bukauskas was touted as a potential first-round selection in the MLB Amateur Draft last June, but he decided early that he was committed to going to North Carolina.
“There was never any serious negotiations,” Bukauskas said of contact with the Arizona Diamondbacks after they chose him in the 20th round of the draft. “I’d gotten calls earlier in the draft, but we told the teams that I was going to school. A few asked if I would change my mind, but I made it pretty firm that I had made the decision to come to school.”
Despite his early success with the Tar Heels, Bukauskas has learned he can’t always get away with what worked for him in high school. He admits college hitters are much further advanced and he has had to learn to locate his fastball (clocked on radar guns in the mid-90s), slider (mid-80s) and change-up (mid-80s) more effectively.
“I’ve definitely learned that you can’t just throw the ball anywhere in the zone,” Bukauskas said. “College hitters are way better than high school hitters, especially in the ACC. I’ve learned that you definitely have to be able to locate all of your pitches, especially your fastball.”
Bukauskas learned that lesson the hard way in his second outing of the season. After earning the victory with five solid innings in his first collegiate start against Seton Hall on Feb. 14, Bukauskas was roughed up by UCLA in his next start eight days later. The freshman allowed season highs of eight hits and six runs (five earned) in just 4.2 innings for his only loss of the season.
“I found out it was a big stepping stone for learning how to pitch,” Bukauskas said of the lesson learned against the Bruins. “The first outing I had went pretty smooth against Seton Hall, but moving from a team we swept to a team that is now ranked in the top 5 in the country is a really big jump. [UCLA is] definitely really good and made me grow up really fast as a pitcher. From there on out, I think I’ve gotten better each outing.”
That has certainly been the case for Bukauskas against ACC opponents. Facing some of the top teams in the country each weekend, he is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in six starts against conference foes, walking 14 and striking out 32 in 39 innings.
In his most recent start against North Carolina State April 11, Bukauskas allowed four hits and two earned runs while walking two and striking out two in 6.1 innings. But it was the fourth straight game in which he received no decision as the Tar Heels won the game in 10 innings, 3-2.
“Each game has been really close,” Bukauskas said of his streak of non-decisions. “Several of them have gone into extra innings, so they’ve been really close, hard-fought games.
“I was a little bit under the weather and didn’t really have my off-speed pitch,” he added regarding his outing against the Wolfpack. “I think I only threw two off-speed pitches all day as I couldn’t really get my location. But give [N.C. State] a lot of credit because they hit the ball really well as a team.”
While Bukauskas has thrived on the field for the Tar Heels, he also has been doing well academically. He accelerated his high school curriculum to graduate early last spring and thus far it has not hurt him in the classroom.
“They give us a lot of help with tutors and academic support, so I haven’t had too much of a problem with my grades,” Bukauskas said. “I just have to keep working hard to keep my grades up and stay eligible. It’s something all of the student-athletes have to deal with. You have to put in your work in the classroom while also doing your work on the field. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s worth it.”
With the season heading into the home stretch – the ACC Tournament will be held May 19-24 in Durham, N.C. – Bukauskas is confident the Tar Heels are heading in the right direction.
“I think we definitely are heating up as a team,” Bukauskas said, noting Carolina had won five straight games before dropping the series finale to N.C. State Sunday. “I’m just trying to help us win games.”