JOHNSON CITY, Tenn — . With his initial professional game out of the way — regardless of how uneventful it was for him — now Bubba Starling can move on to making the most of his first season in the Kansas City Royals organization.
By BOB SUTTON
The Burlington Times-News
The much-anticipated debut finally occurred when Starling batted in the first inning for the Burlington Royals in their 14-2 rout of the Johnson City Cardinals in Thursday night’s Appalachian League game at Howard Johnson Field.
Starling, the fifth overall selection in last year’s draft, went zero for five, walking once and striking out three times. He was one of two players in Burlington’s lineup, which produced five home runs, without a hit.
Still, it rated as a noteworthy milestone.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “I’ve waited to play pro ball, and now it’s here.”
By taking a $7.5 million signing bonus with the Royals last August, Starling, a multisport high school standout from Gardner Edgerton, opted out of a football scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska. The Royals want to take a close inspection this summer.
“He needs to be in there every night, and he needs to play,” Burlington manager Tommy Shields said. “He’s going to be an exciting player. I hope Bubba doesn’t put a lot of pressure on himself.”
Shields said Starling will be pegged as the regular center fielder this summer. He batted No. 3 Thursday night.
His first at-bat was a deep fly ball toward the right-field line, with a teammate tagging up and moving from first base to second base.
Starling has some catching up to do at the plate after missing games.
“Just the timing,” he said. “As far as hitting, my timing has been off.”
Starling sat out the first nine games after re-tweaking a hamstring in an exhibition game June 17, two days before the start of the Appalachian League season.
His parents arrived in Burlington, N.C., for the first three home games last weekend, but he continued to rehab the injury. The ailment was a setback for Starling, who spent extended spring training in Surprise, Ariz., awaiting his first assignment within the Royals’ organization.
The injury occurred in the first inning of the exhibition game when Starling reaccelerated after rounding first base. He had slowed down after singling before deciding to move to second base on what became an outfield error. After that, Starling was an observer during games, charting opposing batters from the dugout.
“I’ve had the stat chart, so I should know where guys on other teams will be hitting the ball when I’m in the field when we play them later in the season,” he said, trying to point out a hidden benefit of the idle time.
Starling said he learned the importance of proper warm-ups when a seemingly minor injury ended up costing him more than 13 percent of the 68-game season right from the start.
He said the best part is finally playing in front of fans after the grind during extended spring training.
In Thursday night’s game, teammate Kenny Diekroeger belted a grand slam in the third inning one batter before Starling’s second plate appearance. Starling walked and later scored on a bases-loaded walk. Starling batted again in an eight-run third, striking out and ending the rally.