CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Mike Fox’s North Carolina baseball program is at its best, opponents step into the batter’s box on Friday night against an elite arm that is both daunting and intimidating. In nine starts this season, J.B. Bukauskas has proven to be a Friday night ace capable of not only leading the Tar Heels back to the postseason, but possibly deep into June where Omaha beckons.
Against N.C. State on Good Friday, Bukauskas may not have had his best stuff early, but he still kept a no-hitter intact through 5 1/3 innings until UNC’s bats finally got to Wolfpack starter Sean Adler. The right-hander from Ashburn, Va. improved to 6-0 on the season (5-0 in ACC play) by allowing one earned run and four hits in seven innings of work. He struck out six batters, walked a pair and did not allow an extra base hit.
That’s what Bukauskas has done all year long. It’s why he’s on the midseason Golden Spikes Award watch list and it’s why he’s likely a lock as a first round draft pick in June. The 6-foot, 201-pound junior has allowed nine earned runs in nine starts this season, while striking out 81 and walking just 15. His 1.40 ERA is second-best in the ACC and opponents are batting .163 against him.
And so while Adler held UNC’s potent offense scoreless through five innings, there was no concern in the Tar Heels’ dugout while Bukauskas countered with his typical mastery on the mound.
“When J.B. holds the other team down, I think our kids feel like it’s just a matter of time before we’re going to score some runs,” Fox said after UNC’s 28th win of the season.
Friday night aces have been the cornerstone of so many of UNC’s College World Series teams during the Fox era. In 2006, Andrew Miller was 13-2 with a 2.48 ERA and struck out 133. Alex White was equally as impressive in 2008, posting a 13-3 record with a 2.83 ERA while striking out 113. Patrick Johnson led UNC to the CWS in 2011 with a 13-2 record and 2.47 ERA, while Kent Emanuel assumed the Friday night role in 2013 and was a solid presence with an 11-5 record and 3.14 ERA.
Most of those former UNC standouts still make it back to Chapel Hill for summer workouts, and have provided guidance for Bukauskas, although his inner drive and focus are what has elevated his pitching in 2017.
“The mental part is a big part of the game,” Bukauskas said on Thursday. “You’ve always got to stay in attack mode and you’ve got to try to keep the game close. The goal is to keep the team in the game.”
UNC pitching coach Robert Woodard described Bukauskas’s mental approach as “extremely high,” even suggesting that may be the most impressive aspect of his ace’s game.
“His level of preparedness in terms of watching film, and not only watching film of upcoming opponents, but watching film on pitchers that are similar to him just to have that thought process,” Woodard said. “He’s just at another level right now in terms of his preparation and attention to detail.”
Bukauskas spent his offseason developing his changeup and working on his fastball command, while also learning how to locate his slider more effectively instead of just utilizing one side of the plate. While he’s averaging 94.8 miles per hour on his fast ball, with it stretching to 99, his ability to craft his slider has possibly elevated that throw into his best pitch.
“He’s acquired some great feel for his slider in terms of being able to attack with it at the same or even better rate as his fastball for a called strike,” Woodard said. “He’s got exceptional feel for adding and subtracting velocity and adjusting the shape with it, whether he wants it to have more tilt or more lateral break. He’s acquired that ability, which is unusual for a 20-year-old.”
His slider is so good he’s essentially got two of them; one slower with more shape, the other more cutter-like that’s harder with less shape. According to Woodard, Bukauskas has learned to get on top of the pitch a little more for more of a downward movement while also knowing how to rip it laterally to generate more of a sweeping motion.
It’s that type of nuance that has Bukauskas 10 strikeouts out of 10th place in school history a little more than halfway into his junior season. It’s also why the Tar Heels are inching ever closer to securing their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2014.