CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—North Carolina junior J.B. Bukauskas could be one of the first pitchers selected in this June’s draft. Facing Kentucky on Friday in Chapel Hill, the righthander tossed six scoreless innings, punching out 10 and walking one while surrendering just three hits. The 20-year-old is a fine prospect, but with that top-of-the-draft status comes additional scrutiny, and Bukauskas will look to prove that he can be a starter at the next level while dominating at this one.
Bukauskas works from the first base side of the rubber. From the windup he has a fluid leg lift and knee fold before striding slightly closed off toward the righthanded batters box. He’s not the most consistent with his motion off the rubber, and on Friday he showed a tendency to rush off his back ankle and hop down the mound, giving him issues repeating his motion. He has a deep scapular load as his front side starts to drive forward, and his elbow is a bit high in back as he plunges backward. His combination of less-than-ideal balance over the rubber and a longer arm stroke are both barriers to command, but he is a solid athlete, young for a draft-eligible college pitcher and it’s very early in the season.
The Virginia native showed his usual excellent velocity, with his fastball parked at 92-96 mph all game long, and scratching 97. In a brilliantly called game, Bukauskas and the Tar Heels recognized Kentucky’s approach quickly and adjusted; in the first time through the order, the Wildcats swung at fastballs early in the count to avoid Bukauskas’s lethal slider. When the 9-hole hitter (Connor Heady) came to the plate for the first time, Bukauskas served him five straight sliders to strike him out. His slider was excellent all game, generating swings and misses in the strike zone. The plus pitch breaks late, taking a hard left turn and running away from righthanded batters. Bukauskas was able to manipulate its break, throwing it with length as a chase pitch with 10-to-4 shape or throwing it with a bit more top-to-bottom action to his arm-side. At 84-88, Bukauskas’s slider may be good enough for him to dominate all season, even when his fastball command isn’t there.
In Bukauskas’s final preseason intrasquad start on Feb. 10, his changeup showed tumble and arm-side run as it disappeared before entering the zone, though he did throw it with less arm speed than he threw his fastball. John Manuel noted the strength of Bukauskas’s changeup last summer during his stint with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, but he didn’t have his best feel for the pitch last Friday. While he did throw the pitch with good arm speed, he missed low with it early on and missed deeply to his arm side at one point, nearly throwing a wild pitch. As the game progressed, however, he found feel for the pitch and was able to consistently locate it down and away from lefthanded hitters, though it lacked the tumbling action and fade that it has shown at its best.