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.
"He's a special competitor. He works so hard on the five, six days between his outings, just very meticulous in his routine, his preparation," UNC pitching coach Robert Woodard said. "That carries over into the game in terms of his competitiveness - he invests so much that when something doesn't go his way or he has a little bit of adversity, he has that extra gear he can kind of take it to. He did a great job (Friday) of making pitch to pitch adjustments, over not waiting for the next inning or having to go to another reliever. He really gathered himself, adjusted and kept competing."
Back in May of 2014 when Bukauskas wrote a letter to every major league club telling them he intended to honor his commitment to UNC rather than entertain draft opportunities, the Tar Heels surely felt they had won the lottery. They must have suspected they were getting a potential future ACC pitcher of the year and an obvious first-round talent.
Fox remembers getting the phone call from Bukauskas three years ago, informing him of the young righthander's intention to attend UNC. As Fox remembers it, the call came in around 1 a.m.
"I wasn't totally surprised, I kind of was, but just the way he told me, just very calm, like, 'Hey Coach, this is J.B., I just wanted to let you know we've written a letter to the teams and I'll be coming to UNC.' Just like that - flat, matter-of-fact. That's him. Like, 'OK J.B. See you soon.'"
That direct, businesslike approach has served Bukauskas well so far in his career. He's one of the more analytical and self-aware pitchers in the country, capable of diagnosing his own strengths and weaknesses, and working to turn his shortcomings into strengths.
Exhibit A is his changeup, which he has been working hard to develop since at least last summer with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team. The pitch has continued to make progress, as he showed when he used it to strike out Duke slugger Griffin Conine early in Friday's game. But a couple of scouts observed that Bukauskas has a tendency to slow down his delivery and let hitters know the pitch is coming. So it was illuminating to hear Bukauskas bring that up himself later in the night, without being prompted.
"It's getting better," Bukauskas said. "I threw like 15 of them tonight, I was happy with it. Got some good swings and misses, some pop-ups and ground balls, and a couple were hit hard. That's the thing, I slowed my mechanics down a little bit, and that will happen - if you show guys what's gonna come, these guys are good hitters, ACC hitters. So can't do that, but I was happy with where it's going."
He also acknowledged that he has gone to UNC closer Josh Hiatt - who owns one of the best changeups in the country - for changeup advice. Again, Bukauskas showed uncommon self-awareness when he described that consultation with Hiatt.
"The biggest thing for me is everything I want to throw, I want to throw for a swing-and-miss. And I'm learning from him that you don't need to go for a swing-and-miss with a changeup, it's a good quick-out pitch," Bukauskas said. "I learn from everybody, talk to everybody, especially guys that have had that kind of success. They're doing something right."
The other thing he's working on is trying to stay closed in his delivery, instead of flying open and letting hitters get a longer look at the ball. He said that when he stays closed, his fastball has more run and better downward angle, and he can locate it better. He's always been better at locating to his glove side, but he has worked to improve his arm-side command as well.
Bukauskas isn't a finished product yet, and he knows that better than anyone. But he's still gotten dramatically better year after year, improving from 5-3, 4.09 as a freshman to 7-2, 3.10 as a sophomore to 8-0, 1.87 as a junior. His strikeout rate has gone up, and he's become harder to hit. He's obviously a major reason for No. 2 North Carolina's superb season, and he'll finally get to pitch on the big stage of the NCAA tournament after the Tar Heels missed the postseason each of the last two years. Getting the program back to the elite level it had reached over the past dozen years (when it made six CWS appearances) was a major motivator for the team-oriented Bukauskas - though he was characteristically understated when he looked ahead to the postseason. "Really looking forward to that," he said. "I think we got a good shot."
Bukauskas' combination of competitiveness, intelligence, selflessness and electrifying stuff make him stand out even among the star-studded list of marquee pitchers who have passed through Chapel Hill in the Fox era (from Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard and Woodard himself to Matt Harvey, Adam Warren, Alex White and Kent Emanuel). Fox and Woodard know how lucky they are to have him leading their staff.
"Blessed is an understatement," Woodard said of the opportunity to coach Bukauaskas in his first year as UNC's pitching coach.
"I remind him of that all the time," Fox quipped.
They're going to enjoy the rest of the Bukauskas era, however long their postseason ride lasts.
"Getting to be his pitching coach this year, there's a sense for me that I just really relish every bullpen session, every one of his outings, just because the time here is limited," Woodard said. "So there's definitely a part of me that's definitely just staying in the moment with him, every bullpen session, every one of his outings and just enjoying.
"It carries over to the rest of the staff, and all the other guys see it. They see him perform, they see him prepare, and it trickles down to all of them and makes everybody else better, just by what he does."
"He's special," Fox added. "He's special in a lot of ways."