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Monday June 27th

J.B. Bukauskas asked all 30 major league teams not to draft him

<p>After reclassifying to get to UNC a year sooner, J.B. Bukauskas has been in lock in the Tar Heels’ weekend rotation.</p>
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After reclassifying to get to UNC a year sooner, J.B. Bukauskas has been in lock in the Tar Heels’ weekend rotation.

He should be in the farm system of some major league club somewhere across the country. He should be a rookie after being taken in the first two rounds of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft.

He should have put his name on a signing bonus check with six, maybe seven, digits.

But he didn’t. While most kids look forward to their senior year in high school, J.B. Bukauskas skipped it to come to UNC early.

While most kids would jump at the shot of life-changing money, J.B. Bukauskas turned it down.

While most kids grow up dreaming of playing baseball in the bigs one day, J.B. Bukauskas told each and every team in the MLB not to draft him.

“I just got hit with a sense that, ‘All right, I’m already graduating early. If I do this I’m going to skip college, I’m going to be 17 living on my own,’” J.B. said.

“It was just kind of like life’s hitting me really quick.”

He was coming to North Carolina.

An afterthought

J.B. never played any sport except for baseball.

According to his dad, Ken, J.B. had potential throughout little league and on the travel ball circuit.

But it wasn’t until his freshman year at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., that Ken knew J.B. had a future in the game.

His coach was looking at J.B. to throw one of the most important games of the season.

“The coach tells him, ‘You’re pitching against Madison, at Madison,’” Ken remembers.

Madison — referring to James Madison High School in Vienna, Va. — is Stone Bridge’s rival and a consistent baseball powerhouse. And that year, Madison was loaded.

“They’re a perennial top-20, top-30 type of school in the entire country,” Ken said.

“And we went over there and (J.B.) beat them two to nothing. It was his first game — well, was it his first game?”

Ken pauses.

“Actually, it was his second game,” Ken said. “His first game he threw a no-hitter.”

A no-hitter, in his first game in high school.

An afterthought.

A transformation

J.B. was anything but an afterthought to the world of major league scouts. Let’s say he was more of a surprise.

At just about 6 feet, J.B. wasn’t tall enough to be a top MLB prospect. His 88-90 mph fastball wasn’t fast enough.

An American League scout, who cannot be named due to team policy, remembers the first time he noticed J.B. during the 2013 summer after his sophomore year.

It was at the Perfect Game Junior National, an event that is often thrown into the shadow of the summer’s marquee event: Perfect Game National.

“He showed pretty well,” said the AL scout. “He looked like he was going to be something of a guy for next year.”

With two more years still to go before he was eligible for the draft, J.B. Bukauskas wasn’t a name that MLB scouts had circled and highlighted.

That is, not until J.B. decided to stop pitching.

“I took the entire fall off after the 2013 summer,” J.B. said. “I put on like 20 pounds and actually started lifting for the first time.

“The ball started coming out a little bit faster.”

By “a little bit faster” J.B. meant throwing 94 to 97 mph. An above-average fastball for a junior in high school. An above–average fastball for a college pitcher. An above-average fastball for a major league starting pitcher.

“Nobody expected him to come out showing the sort of (velocity) that he did,” said the AL scout. “I think he had two preseason scrimmages where he was up to like 97.

“And honestly, the entire scouting world on the East Coast went wild.”

A realization

With a new, flashy mid-90s fastball, J.B. started attracting more attention than ever before. Teams were trying to learn more about the 6-foot-nothing kid from Stone Bridge.

At this point, J.B. had reclassified to graduate a year early. While dominating his high school competition, J.B. knew he was ready for the next level — whatever that turned out to be. The MLB scouts who weren’t looking at him just months ago started to scramble.

“They were like, ‘Who is this guy? We have no history with him,’” the scout said.

So, in J.B.’s first game his junior season, the stands were a bit more crowded than usual.

“There were like 20 cross-checkers there ... actually more cross-checkers than area scouts,” the scout said.

Usually, area scouts will find prospects and then have cross-checkers, their superiors, come do a report as well.

“There were even assistant (general managers), and that was his first time out,” he said.

While every year there are pitchers who see a jump in fastball velocity, the uptick that J.B. saw was ... unusual.

“There are probably two or three guys in a draft class who get significant (velocity) jump like that, but very few of them jump up to 97-98,” said the AL scout. “That was a pretty abnormal thing.

“Even in the last five to 10 years, there have only been a handful of guys who are consistently up to 97-98.”

Scouts started visiting J.B. and talking with him and his parents about a future in professional baseball.

“(Teams would) come into the house, and (J.B.) and my wife and I would sit and chat with them,” Ken said. “There were some fairly serious conversations going on, especially with three or four of the teams. And you know, they were very good at what they do as scouts.”

After each of these visits, the Bukauskas family would gather in their kitchen.

“We’d just kind of have a little pow-wow and discuss,” Ken said. “How did that one go?”

Around that time, Baseball America — an MLB draft coverage site — ranked J.B. as the 33rd-best player in the country. At No. 33, J.B. would have been a first-round draft pick.

In the 2014 draft, the Boston Red Sox took Michael Kopech, a high school pitcher out of Texas, with the 33rd pick. Kopech signed with the team for $1.5 million.

But J.B. wasn’t going to be signing for that kind of money. He wasn’t going to be signing for anything at all.

“I think at one point, probably six or seven weeks before the draft, we got into the kitchen and he was pretty quiet,” Ken said. “One of the teams said that their entire scouting system was going to be coming to one of his games.

“And because they were doing that, the guy had said, ‘This is pretty serious.’ That night after that meeting, we get into the kitchen and J.B. says, ‘I really want to go to school.’”

An arrival

Now one of UNC’s best pitchers halfway through the 2015 season, J.B. sits in Wendy’s and thinks back to his decision to tell teams not to draft him.

He doesn’t have any regrets.

“It’s just a risk I was willing to take,” he said. “Because I have confidence in myself, and hopefully my arm holds up.

“I had that conversation with my dad and some of the other coaches around the area, and they said, ‘You can’t ever really be scared to fail because that’s just part of the game. The game is a failing game.’”

That hasn’t proven to be the case for J.B. so far this season under UNC coach Mike Fox.

Forty-one games into the Tar Heels’ 2015 season, J.B. is 3-1 with a 3.88 ERA while striking out 48 batters and walking 21. Opponents are hitting just .232 off of him.

“Man, he’s just got explosive stuff, he’s got so much potential,” said senior starter Benton Moss after J.B.’s first collegiate start. “It’s awesome just to watch him.”

So far this year, J.B. has gone primarily to that mid-90s fastball — the same one that made him a scouting sensation — to mow through Division I lineups on a regular basis. He’s flashed an above-average slider at times, but hasn’t needed to go to his off-speed pitches, which includes a changeup, much to get out of trouble.

Still, it’s not just the speed that J.B. is capable of generating that makes him so good.

“You can see the great arm he has,” Fox said. “I think he’s only going to get better. (He’s) very controlled, very calm.”

And why shouldn’t he be? He’s faced pressure before.

A message

The first time the scout saw J.B. in person was that game with all of the cross-checkers in 2014 against a familiar opponent: James Madison.

“(Madison) had some guys who were taking some pretty good cuts at the ball,” said the AL scout. “I remember he came out of the gate, and you could tell — he admitted this after the fact to me — he came out of the gate a little nervous in that first inning.

“I mean, you have that many (radar) guns back there, and it’s your first time really throwing to that many scouts in a game setting. He was up in the zone quite a bit.”

That situation might have been too daunting at the start. He needed time to adjust.

That’s one of the reasons J.B. got quiet that one night in his family’s kitchen and told his parents he wanted to go to college. He still needed that time.

Besides, he’d committed to UNC his freshman year of high school.

“We had grown to have a deep relationship with the coaches,” Ken said. “They had done a great job calling him, keeping up to speed with his progression.”

And it was also feeling like he was part of the UNC community before he even set foot on campus as a student.

“For two years, you’re wearing Carolina Blue,” Ken said. “We’re following the team like crazy, that 2013 year.

“And you start to bleed that Carolina Blue.”

J.B. had been bleeding it for some time.

“I always knew I wanted to come here,” he said. “I wanted to go to school, I wanted to grow up a little bit, have fun, get an education in college.”

That’s why, three years after a forgotten no-hitter in his first start as a high school pitcher, J.B. is one of the best freshman pitchers in the ACC — one of the best in the entire country.

That’s why J.B. goes home at night to Avery — a dorm right beside UNC’s Boshamer Stadium — instead of some hotel with a minor league team.

That’s why, with millions of dollars on the table, he sent this message to all 30 teams in Major League Baseball:

“Thank you so much for spending the time to scout me. I love the process and I hope to see you guys again in three years when I’m out of school.

“But I’m going to North Carolina.”

sports@dailytarheel.com



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