J.B. Bukauskas is just happy to just be pain-free on the mound. Success is just a bonus.
After a nagging injury sidelined him for the larger part of the first half of the season, Houston's No. 8 prospect allowed three hits and two walks while fanning six over six frames in Class A Advanced Buies Creek's 5-0 win over Down East on Thursday at Grainger Stadium.
Gameday box score
"To go out and implement some of the things we've been working on was really a great feeling," said Bukauskas, who reiterated he felt 100 percent in the outing. "We threw a lot of changeups -- that was really the emphasis going into tonight -- and I think it's getting better. I'm really happy that we're able to really start to work on some things."
The 21-year-old sustained a slipped disk in his thoracic spine after a car crash during Spring Training, but the injury didn't flare up until two starts in with Class A Quad Cities. After four rehab outings -- one in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and three with Class A Short Season Tri-City -- Bukauskas (1-0) made one start with the Bandits before moving up to the Carolina League.
He's displayed sterling health and good numbers with Buies Creek, sporting a 1.64 ERA through his first two starts.
The promotion was especially meaningful for Bukauskas, who played college ball about an hour north at the University of North Carolina. He posted a 9-1 record and a 2.53 ERA in his final season with the Tar Heels, prompting the Astros to nab him with the No. 15 overall pick in last year's Draft.
"You'll see some people come around and just want to catch up -- it's nice," Bukauskas said. "Makes you feel like you're at home. I'm just trying to take it all in. Being back around Chapel Hill, it's been awesome."
Buies Creek pitching coach Drew French said Bukauskas was raised to a pitch count of 90 -- he hurled 86 on Thursday -- as he continues to stretch out.
The starter's two highest rated pitches out of UNC were a sinking fastball -- which sat at 94 to 96 mph against the Wood Ducks, according to French -- and a slider. He's added a cutter and a changeup, two pitches he's made a concerted effort to mix in throughout more of his outings.
"[The cutter has] been a big, big pitch for me lately. I've been throwing it a lot to get back into counts," Bukauskas said. "Those two pitches [the cutter and changeup] have been huge. Say the other one isn't working, it gives you two other offerings to go to. ... I've been really excited about it."
French has only seen Bukauskas for two starts, but he likes what he's watched so far.
"From where I'm sitting, it was his changeup and his ability to get his changeup going to the left-handed hitters early. He was able to sprinkle it in to right-handed hitters just enough to get them off his slider and fastball," French said. "He's got really good stuff and he's got really good fastball velo.
"He was able to really mix and be unpredictable. I think the common theme throughout baseball is when guys have success, they're able to do some things behind in the count that aren't necessarily fastball-related."
Bukauskas allowed base runners in four of his six innings, with the most daunting threat coming in the third frame when Eric Jenkins and top Rangers prospect Leody Taveras collected consecutive one-out singles. But the right-hander fanned LeDarious Clark and dispatched Anderson Tejeda with a groundout to first to end the inning.
Carlos Sanabria allowed one hit and one walk with three strikeouts in two scoreless innings of relief and Colin McKee shut the door by whiffing two in a flawless ninth.
J.J. Matijevic finished 2-for-4 with a solo homer and an RBI double and Jonathan Arauz clubbed a two-run homer to pace the Buies Creek offense.