<
>

Bubba Starling blasts back into action

4/29/2011 - MLB
Bubba Starling crushed two home runs in his return to action on Thursday. Jeremy Crabtree/ESPN.com

GARDNER, Kan. -- Bubba Starling returned to the lineup, and with him came the reappearance of the microscope.

Over the past 3 1/2 weeks as Starling sat with a quad injury, crowds dwindled at Gardner Edgerton High School baseball games. Professional scouts disappeared. Curious observers from nearby Kansas City walked away at the announcement of a Bubba-free lineup.

It all came roaring back on Thursday.

Starling smashed a pair of long home runs in his first action since April 2, doubled, stole two bases and walked three times in the Trailblazers' doubleheader sweep of Blue Valley Southwest. And he did it amid a chaotic environment courtesy of some 60 scouts on hand to watch the 6-foot-5, 195-pound center fielder set to command first-round money after the Major League Baseball draft in June.

"He has every right to be nervous," Gardner Edgerton baseball coach Jerald VanRheen said, "but he just trusts his instincts. That's just him. He's got it all."

Soon, Starling will face the decision of his life: Pro baseball or the University of Nebraska, with which he signed a letter of intent in February as a high school All-America quarterback.

He plans to play baseball at Nebraska, too, if he's not under contract with a pro organization by the Aug. 15 deadline.

Don't assume that a seven-figure signing bonus will sway the three-sport standout away from college.

"People think they know I'm going to sign," said Starling, who also stars in basketball at Gardner Edgerton. "They don't know. They don't know that I love football as much as I do."

Don't assume anything with Starling, who defies logic daily. Take Thursday, when rust could have taken a toll. He did not enjoy the time off.

"I thought having a break would be something I would enjoy," he said, "because I never get a break. But I hated every minute of it."

He liked this day on the diamond, though, which began as Starling arrived to take a few early swings 2 1/2 hours before first pitch.

"I had 20 scouts just standing there to watch me," he said. "It's like, 'Well, all right.' It puts a little pressure on me. But this is fun. Not many kids get a chance to have this many people watching them."

Starling walked on four pitches in his first plate appearance. He ripped a double past third base in the third inning before drawing a pair of intentional walks to the dismay of the visiting scouts.

The group included J.J. Picollo, Kansas City Royals assistant general manager for scouting and player development. Picollo had already watched Starling twice in practice this week. On Tuesday, Starling launched a ball in batting practice that traveled more than 500 feet over a street behind the baseball field, according to VanRheen.

He homered Thursday in his first at-bat of the second game, pounding a low curveball with his smooth, right-handed swing over the 354-foot sign in left-center field. After a pop out and a strikeout, Starling came to bat in the sixth inning and heard a woman near visiting dugout shout encouragement to the pitcher. 'Strike him out again', she said.

Starling got mad and punished a fastball, with even the scouts marvelling at how the ball exploded off his bat. The second home run soared even further than his first near the same spot left of the scoreboard.

"A no-doubter," Starling said.

The scouts scribbled a few notes. Then most of them left.

After the game, Starling mentioned only the strikeout when a friend offered praise for his big day.

"That's just him," VanRheen said. "He's got it at all. He's mentally strong. He's physically strong. He's gifted. I've never seen anyone like him. And he's grown up a ton to handle a situation like he did out there.

"So not only does he have major-league skills, he has a major-league mentality."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman