GSA Spotlight: UNC’s J.B. BukauskasGolden Spikes Spotlight
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — An uncharacteristic mistake early in Friday’s game against Duke revealed a lot about J.B. Bukauskas.
With a runner at third base and two outs in the second inning, Bukauskas got ahead of dangerous Duke righthanded hitter Jimmy Herron — he said later that he was beating Herron with fastballs, and he should have stuck with it. Instead, he shook off the call from the dugout and threw a changeup, and Herron turned on it for an RBI double down the left-field line. When Bukauskas got back to the dugout between innings, North Carolina coach Mike Fox greeted him.
“I very rarely will say something, but I said something to him. I’m like, ‘He’s probably their best offensive player. There’s a guy in scoring position, you have to make him beat your best stuff.’ He got mad at me; he said, ‘Yes, sir,’ but in one of those (tones),” Fox said. “And then after the game he came up to me and apologized. I said, ‘J.B., you don’t need to apologize to me. If you weren’t upset with that, then I would really be worried about you.’ That’s the way he is. He cares a lot, I think his teammates love him.”
It was clear that Bukauskas didn’t have his very best stuff early in that game. Afterward, he said he was having problems with a blister that broke open on his finger, which hindered his feel for his slider — normally one of the most devastating pitches in college baseball. On this day, the 82-86 mph slider showed flashes of its typical filthy late tilt, but its break was inconsistent and he struggled to command it.
So Bukauskas made an adjustment. Rather than leaning on his slider for outs, he pounded the zone with his fastball, which sat at 94-96 mph in the first and then sat mostly at 92-94 over the next six innings, touching 95 repeatedly. And starting in the third, he found his groove, retiring 12 straight Duke batters.
“He’s had some outings like that where he just finds a way for three or four innings, just to show the other team that, ‘OK, I may not have this pitch or that pitch, but I’ve got this one.’ And he just gives our team a chance,” Fox said. “It’s as much a boost for our offense as anything else. They’re like, ‘OK, J.B.’s getting in a groove now, they’re probably going to go three or four innings without scoring, so let’s do something.”
That’s what happened Friday night, as UNC overcame an early 2-0 deficit and won 3-2 in 10 innings. A few days later, when the regular season was over, Bukauskas was named ACC Pitcher of the Year after going 8-0, 1.87 with 106 strikeouts and 31 walks in 82 innings. He had some brilliant days this spring, but most impressively, he was amazingly consistent from week to week.
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