After season derailed by injuries, former Husker recruit Bubba Starling off to best start of career

Bubba Starling has five multihit games in his past eight starts and is batting .389 in his nine games on the road. 

Bubba Starling seemed to be destined for a breakthrough season in 2018.

Kansas City’s 2011 first-round draft pick, a former Nebraska football recruit, was in the midst of a career year with Omaha in 2017 when his summer was interrupted by a torn oblique muscle he suffered in July.

Starling was hoping to pick up where he left off when last season began. But 11 games into his second full Triple-A season, he suffered another oblique injury. He endured setbacks during his rehabilitation process and missed nearly the whole summer. When he was about to return, he then broke a finger.

In all, Starling played 20 games in 2018. Nine of those came during his rehabilitation assignment.

He’s back on the field now and off to the best start of any season of his career. The eighth-year pro enters this week’s five-game PCL home series with Memphis with an impressive .358 batting average.

Starling has five multihit games in his past eight starts and is batting .389 in his nine games on the road.

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“Man, first off, last year was tough, being injured with obliques and finger and whatnot,” Starling said. “I tried to stay positive going into the offseason and just kept working, working, working. And I’m still working with (hitting coach Brian Buchanan) and the guys here. I felt good coming into spring training. I felt confident. I think that was the main thing, being confident up there and having a good approach.”

Starling, a center fielder, has two major things going for him right now. The first is that he’s healthy. Injuries have plagued him throughout his baseball career. And the second is that he’s in a good place mentally. In past seasons, his confidence has wavered as he’s struggled with consistency at the plate.

That appeared to change, however, when he went on a 12-game hitting streak — one that he sacrificed, literally, by bunting in his final plate appearance to help Omaha win a game — in May of 2017. Starling, who opened that season by hitting .129 in April, batted .290 the next three months until his injury.

He never got a chance to capitalize on the momentum he was building, missing nearly all of last season.

“It went from one injury to the next,” he said. “I thought I would get healthy and be back out playing with my boys, and it was always something. I’m glad that season’s over with, and the past seasons that I’ve been injured. I’m just trying to take care of my body and see what happens (by) staying on the field.”

There are a lot of people interested to find out, most notably those in the Royals front office. K.C. gave Starling a $7.5 million signing bonus after selecting him fifth in the draft out of nearby Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas. The Royals have stayed behind the outfielder throughout his trials in the minors.

Kansas City did, however, remove Starling, who has yet to make it to the majors, from its 40-man roster after last season. General Manager Dayton Moore, though, said the Royals were hoping to re-sign him.

That happened in December. Starling, in Triple-A since mid-2016, returned on a minor league deal.

“There might have been an opportunity somewhere else, but I really respect (Assistant GM) J.J. (Picollo), Dayton Moore and (Assistant GM) Scott Sharp for having patience with me and the injuries I went through,” he said. “There’s no other organization that treats players like this. I was happy to sign back.”

Starling has always had five-tool potential. He’s been ranked as the best defensive outfielder in the Royals farm system by Baseball America for four years in a row. The former multisport athlete and star quarterback, listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has speed and a big arm. He just needs to hit.

And if the first few weeks of the PCL season are an indication of what’s to come, he may be doing that.

Starling will turn 27 this summer and is no longer considered a prospect. That doesn’t mean it’s too late.

“The tools are still there,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “It’s a matter of him putting it together.

“This is a kid that was raised Royal. We kind of take care of our own. He hasn’t done anything to say he’s going backwards because his tools are still there. I’m excited to see what happens this year because this year’s kind of a do-or-die year. And from the start he’s had, it looks like it’s going in the right direction.”

Through 14 games, Starling has shown all his abilities. He’s played flawlessly in the field, with a couple of outfield assists. He’s hitting with a high average and has four extra-base hits. He’s even stolen five bases.

In a home game early in the season, Starling beat out a bunt single, then swiped both second and third.

“I need to be a little more aggressive on the bases,” he said. “That’s part of my game. And I need to keep being aggressive and obviously be smart at the same time. There are guys behind me that can swing it.”

It’s still early, but Starling is seemingly on the verge of having the season he expected a year ago. He said he knows he’s just got to be on the field — healthy and playing. The rest, he said, will take care of itself.

“I know I’ve got to get a lot of at-bats in because I haven’t had too many in the last year and a half,” he said. “Once I can get my at-bats in, and hopefully keep grinding, we’ll see what happens after that.”