Bubba Starling started his first professional season in extended spring training. While there, he underwent a wash-rinse-repeat routine of performing drills and playing games against fellow Royals rookies. All under a broiling Arizona sun and before a handful of fans.
He was set to join Rookie-level Burlington in the middle of June, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the B-Royals' first nine contests to start the Appalachian League season.
But the beginning of his pro ball career could soon be a distant memory as Starling homered twice and drove in six runs Monday in Burlington's 13-5 dismantling of Danville. The pair of blasts represented the first two of the Royals top prospect's young Minor League career that has spanned only four games.
The 19-year-old center fielder wasn't even sure that he'd connected on his first roundtripper.
With Burlington leadoff hitter Terrance Gore on second base after a single and a pickoff gone awry, Starling stepped in against Danville starter Rafael Briceno for his first at-bat. On a 2-1 count, the right-hander tossed a low two-seam fastball that the right-handed batter said he "put a good swing on." He just didn't know how good.
"I wasn't sure that it was going to get out of there," Starling said. "I sprinted down the first-base line because I wanted to make sure I got a double or a triple if it hit the wall. But then, I saw it go over the left-field wall and got to take it easier. It was a special moment."
After lining an RBI single to center in the third and striking out in the fourth and sixth frames, the Kansas native made solid contact once again -- this time on a 1-0 fastball by southpaw reliever Michael Hashem.
"I knew I was going to get some offspeed pitches because I got hits off my fastballs in my first two at-bats," Starling said. "He missed with a pitch at first, so I thought he would come back with a fastball."
Hashem did just that, and Starling once again deposited the pitch over the left-field fence for a three-run homer. This time, there was no doubt about what he had produced.
"It was just one of those swings where you knew it was gone the second you hit it," Starling said. "I didn't really feel it too, which is good. It just got out of here pretty quickly."
MLB.com's No. 12 prospect, who sat out Sunday as a scheduled day off, struck out again in the ninth, but at that point, his best professional game thus far had already been cemented. (He was 2-for-11 with a walk, two RBIs and three strikeouts in his first three games for Burlington.)
As happy as he was to produce on a big-time scale Monday, Starling seemed just as pleased to be doing so on a stage somewhat larger than the all-but-empty practice facility just northwest of Phoenix. Not to mention that he was happy he finally got to leave the Burlington bench.
"I was looking forward to playing with all the guys and just getting my timing back," he said. "I still need to work on some things, but I'm just excited to be here and playing.
"It was tough. Guys you had been playing with and living with for two-and-a-half months were out there, getting to play, and there was nothing I could do. It was tough for a week, but the guys and the coaching staff were doing a lot to help me out, keeping me feeling part of the team. Now, I feel like I'm ready to stay."
Starling isn't bothered by the process it took to get him to Burlington. In fact, believe it or not, he would suggest teenage players like him follow a similar path.
"Extended had its ups and downs, but it worked out well overall," said Starling, who passed on a University of Nebraska football scholarship to sign for $7.5 million with the Royals last year. "I made a lot of adjustments with my swing while I was there, thanks to the help from a lot of great coaches we have. It was definitely a grind, but I think it made me a better player overall.
"I'm glad they sent me there. You get all the reps you can, and then go off to whatever league they send you to better than you were before."
Now that Starling finds himself producing in live games in the Appalachian League, he's facing the pressure that comes with the territory of being a high draft pick and a top ranked prospect. But those particular demands won't come from within the Royals organization.
"I think they just want to see me play every day," he said. "They told me not to put pressure on myself, which I don't. Just have a good summer and continue to improve and get better with everything. Stats don't matter -- well, they matter -- but they don't at the same time."