Bubba Starling didn’t need Lasik surgery to see he was in a different world.
“Just from rookie ball last year to this, balls you think are going through the six hole are backhanded, the throw beats you and you wonder how he made that play,” Starling said. “It’s just going to be that way.”
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It will be, for the rest of Starling’s baseball career, which he hopes will improve two months after the laser eye surgery. Starling had said he wasn’t picking up the baseball’s spin during night games, and the procedure has helped.
Now, he’s looking for his offensive game to catch up.
Starling broke a zero-for-25 skid with a ninth-inning single Saturday and added an RBI single on Sunday to bring his average to .215 for the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League.
Saturday, the flare to right off a finesse lefty was a nice piece of hitting on a night when Starling made decent contact on his other plate appearances, a couple of ground-outs and a fly to left.
Starling’s numbers improved the month after the surgery but have since dipped, and he finds himself in a strange place.
For the first time as an athlete, one who has thrived in multiple sports, Starling is dealing with baseball’s humbling nature. During his days as a three-sport star at Gardner Edgerton High, Starling could simply out-athlete any opponent and will himself to success.
“I was used to,” Starling paused, “not failing. But in baseball, as you move up you have to get used to that.”
But it’s an adjustment. Just two years removed from his remarkable high school days, and a season after hitting .275 for the Royals’ rookie team in Burlington, N.C., Starling is struggling for an extended period for the first time.
“Defensively, I feel good,” Starling said.
He hasn’t lost a step. On his ground outs Saturday, Starling broke from the box in a full sprint and made two easy plays close.
“But I’m still finding my swing,” Starling said. “It’s a work in progress, and I’m not looking at anything as an excuse. It’s up to me.”
The Royals had plenty of scouting on Starling, who grew up some 40 miles from Kauffman Stadium. They knew his baseball experience had been limited to high school seasons and some summer youth travel. Starling was no year-round ball player, not with football and basketball to enjoy, and this fall will mark the second time Starling will play baseball during football season.
Still, as the top-rated position player by some services in 2011, the Royals made Starling their first choice — fifth overall — and signed him to a bonus reportedly worth $7.5 million, enough for him to pass up an offer to attend Nebraska and play quarterback and outfield. The Royals knew Starling’s development would take time.
“He hasn’t played a whole lot of baseball, and people don’t understand that,” Lexington manager Brian Buchanan said. “Him being the first-round pick, people think he’s going to shoot through the system.
“He’s such a good athlete and has such a winning mentality, he’s going to be fine. I know he’s frustrated, but it’s part of the learning process.”
So is handling the little things, like stepping into the box and not gazing at the scoreboard with your batting average staring back at you, or not trying to end a week’s slump with one swing.
“Young players, when things don’t go well want to speed things up and try a lot harder,” Buchanan said. “You can’t do that, the game will eat you alive. You can’t go get the game, it has to come to you.”
It did, in Starling’s final at-bat Saturday, when he went with a pitch on the outside half and served it to right. Five of the six previous Lexington hitters had fanned against the same pitcher.
“It was a good pitch, low and away and he stayed with it,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said Starling’s approach has evolved.
“He doesn’t take his (previous) at-bats up there each time, and he doesn’t take them into the field, and that’s different for a young player,” Buchanan said.
Also separating Starling is an expanded athletic base. Nebraska football fans would love to see him wearing red one day, and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden is a recent example of a multisport prospect who gave professional baseball a shot before entering college as a 24-year-old freshman at Oklahoma State. He was the Cowboys’ starting quarterback for two years, including the 2011 Big 12 title season.
Starling said he’ll always be a Cornhuskers’ fan and was happy to hear about Lee Summit West two-sport star Monte Harrison committing to Nebraska. But Starling thinks baseball first.
“I’m having my ups and downs,” Starling said. “It’s a big challenge, but this is what I want to do.”
The Royals are patient, understanding what may lie ahead.
“When he gets it,” Buchanan said, “he’s going to get it and go.”