No longer hamstrung by a tweak, Burlington Royals’ bonus baby Bubba Starling’s professional career is off and running.
Starling, who passed up an offer to play quarterback at Nebraska when he signed for a $7.5 million bonus after being drafted fifth overall last year, got his first professional hit and made two long, running catches in center field look easy in Burlington’s 6-0 defeat of Johnson City on Friday night at Cardinal Park.
Burlington left fielder Terrance Gore was 3-for-4, catcher Cameron Gallager, a second-round draft pick, was 2-for-4, and each drove in two runs for the Royals (7-4), who scored twice in the second, third and sixth innings.
Starling missed the first nine games with a pulled hamstring and went 0-for-5 in his debut Thursday night, but didn’t take long heating up on a sweltering night when the temperature in the parking lot was 102 degrees 10 minutes before the first pitch. Starling, batting third, lined a 2-1 fastball sharply past shortstop Cesar Valera in the first inning for a two-out single — his first professional hit.
“It felt great, considering my parents just got in town today and got to see it — the whole family actually,” Starling said. “It was nice, because the team kind of picked me up and I got to keep the ball and everything. I’ll definitely remember that. It’ll be special.”
Starling also walked, hit a changeup some 380 feet that speedy counterpart C.J. McElroy ran down to catch in the third and missed a double by some six inches in the left-field corner before grounding out in the ninth.
“It was close, but then again, I knew it was hooking,” Starling said. “I hit it good.”
Starling’s talent was best showcased by the difficult, over-the-shoulder catches he made look routine while robbing first baseman Michael Knox of extra-base hits in each of his final two at-bats. Both blasts were on a line, and Knox just shook his head after Starling caught the first one near the center-field fence to retire the side and strand Ildemaro Vargas at second base.
“Their first baseman, first of all, he’s a good dude,” Starling said. “I was on base a couple of times, got to talk to him and he’s a good dude. I know he’s got some crazy oppo-field power. I love balls like that where I can just track ’em down and help out my pitcher.”
The first time Starling robbed Knox concluded Burlington left-handed starter Patrick Conroy’s outing. Conroy (1-0), making his third start, lowered his ERA to 3.86 with six shutout innings. He allowed five hits, one walk and struck out two.
“Bubba really showed his defense tonight,” Conroy said. “That was great to see.”
Conroy, who commended battery mate Gallager’s work behind the plate, frequently got ahead in the count with offspeed pitches. Johnson City (5-6) was 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
“We had a good road trip where everybody was swinging good against Bluefield and Pulaski,” Johnson City hitting coach Ramon “Smoky” Ortiz said. “But the last two games I’ve seen guys trying to do too much, especially with men in scoring position, and swinging at pitches out of the zone. And I would say give credit to the other pitchers. They kept us off balance and out of timing all day long.”
One of Gore’s RBIs came on a bunt single in the sixth.
Vargas was 2-for-4 with two doubles. Valera was 2-for-3.
McElroy doubled off the left-center field fence in the eighth and prevented Fred Ford from leading off the seventh with a hit when he got a good jump and dashed in to catch a sinking line-drive.
Former Major League Baseball umpire Dale Ford was behind the plate on what was promoted as Military Appreciation Night.
The final game of the series is tonight at 6.