Stone Bridge's JB Bukauskas is graduating early to attend University of North Carolina, but now he may have a tough decision ahead of him. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

A group of more than 20 middle-aged men sat clustered in the stands at an early April high school baseball game in Fairfax, their radar guns at the ready. They wore nondescript clothing and baseball caps, but their presence was no secret. They were Major League Baseball scouts, and they were there to see Stone Bridge pitcher JB Bukauskas, a flame-throwing right-hander who has quickly become the most intriguing prospect in the region.

With every Bukauskas leg lift and swift arm movement to home plate, an array of radar guns ascended into the air. They read 96, 95 and 96 mph as first-inning fastballs blew past Fairfax hitters and smacked into Stone Bridge catcher Eli Quiceno’s glove with such ferocity they left his hand swollen.

Some scouts scribbled down notes. Others timed the seconds between each pitch. The 17-year-old Bukauskas paid the additional spectators no mind as he tore through the Rebels’ lineup with an overpowering fastball, biting slider and batter-freezing change-up to finish with 11 strikeouts for the second time in as many starts.

Many scouts expect to see Bukauskas, who has signed with perennial college baseball power North Carolina, selected in June’s MLB draft, possibly as early as the first or second round. That would force Bukauskas to make a major decision much sooner than most: keep his commitment to play for his dream school, or sign a potentially lucrative contract and head straight to the ranks of professional baseball before his 18th birthday.

“I think he’s a top-two-rounds pick for sure,” said Keith Law, ESPN’s lead baseball analyst for Scouts Inc. “If the draft was held today — just given the velocity, the size, and he’s a good, bright kid going to Chapel Hill — he’d be in line for a seven-figure bonus.”

At the request of the North Carolina coaching staff, Bukauskas agreed to reclassify to the class of 2014 in July, forcing him to take additional coursework to expedite his graduation and arrival in Chapel Hill.

But with his fastball regularly reaching the mid- to upper-90s and touching 100 mph in a game Monday, that accelerated academic work might have facilitated a different trajectory.

Magic numbers

As a high school junior who planned to graduate after three years, Bukauskas had to submit paperwork required by the MLB Commissioner’s Office to become eligible for the 2014 draft.

He was cleared in early January, and MLB scouts soon began to visit. They wanted to see if Bukauskas had increased the velocity of his pitches after he took the fall off to add weight to his 6-foot-1 frame. When scouts last saw him pitch at the Perfect Game Underclass All-American Games in San Diego in August, his fastball topped out at 93 mph.

With a focus on squatting exercises, Bukauskas added 30 pounds to bring his weight to 195, and in late February several MLB scouts flocked to Sterling’s Pinkman Baseball Academy, where Bukauskas trains with his off-field pitching coach and the academy’s founder, John Pinkman.

After a brief warmup, Bukauskas threw the fastball that changed everything. The number ‘98’ appeared on the LED scoreboard connected to Pinkman’s Stalker radar gun, and the scouts in attendance looked at one another.

Pinkman, who hadn’t seen a high school pitcher reach that speed in years, asked one of the scouts to retrieve his radar gun out of the car. Several pitches later, the scout’s gun read 99.

“You don’t see guys with that kind of arm too often,” one MLB scout said of Bukauskas’s potential. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Bukauskas shut down the session, but word of his blazing fastball spread quickly among area scouts.

In March scrimmages against Herndon and Westfield, 28 of 30 MLB teams sent scouts to watch Bukauskas strike out 17 batters. Over his first four regular season starts, Bukauskas has yet to allow a run and has struck out 51 batters. In his Monday outing against West Potomac he struck out a school-record 18 batters, and his fastball touched 100 mph on several scouts’ guns.

“You don’t see guys with that kind of arm too often,” said one MLB scout, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s got pitches now that are really ahead of his age. You hope for him to be a little bit bigger, but with the arm that he’s got it’s rare to find.”

Opening the door

Bukauskas is a beneficiary of a new MLB rule implemented during last year’s draft that allows a high school graduate who has completed three years of academic coursework to become draft eligible. From 2002 to 2012, a high school player who dropped out but passed the General Educational Development (GED) test was forced to wait one year before he could be drafted.

In 2001, former Detroit Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, who had completed his GED after three years of high school, became the first high school junior to be selected in the first round. The rule was altered the following year.

Washington Nationals 21-year-old left fielder Bryce Harper was subjected to the decade-long rule before he was selected first overall in 2010. He passed his GED test after completing two high school academic years in 2009, and then spent one year at the College of Southern Nevada to be eligible for the 2010 draft.

Last year, after talks with the MLB Players Association, the Commissioner’s Office ruled high school juniors could be draft eligible if they submitted a sworn affidavit to the Commissioner’s Office by May 1 that said they would have completed four requirements within 45 days of the end of the draft: graduate after three years of coursework; be 17 years old; refrain from playing high school baseball after graduation; and provide written notice of their desire to be draft eligible by Jan. 15.

The rule went into effect before the 2013 MLB draft in which the Nationals selected Drew Ward in the third round (105th pick overall). Ward was the first player to take advantage of the new policy. But while Ward would have been a 19-year-old senior had he not chosen to graduate early, Bukauskas doesn’t turn 18 until October.

Consistency is key

Since the February bullpen session that sparked Bukauskas’s ascent up prospect lists, scouts have arrived at Stone Bridge games in droves, and at least 16 have visited his family’s Ashburn home.

But the added attention hasn’t affected his pitching style and his maturity on the mound.

“I want to show good numbers, but I don’t sacrifice my command or risk helping our team to try to show off for scouts,” Bukauskas said.

The fastball may be his ticket, but Bukauskas knows he must continue to develop greater consistency with his breaking ball and change-up.

“He needs to work on the consistency of all of his pitches, and mainly his command,” the MLB scout said. “He can flash solid to plus with all of his pitches right now, but the consistency is what’s going to take him to the next level.”

If selected in the first round, Bukauskas would become the first player since Bonderman (26th overall in 2001) to be picked on the first day of the draft immediately after completing his third year in high school. He would also become the first player from Loudoun County to be drafted directly out of high school since right-hander Joe Foote (Park View) was selected in the 47th round by the Minnesota Twins in 1997.

The draft is less than two months away, but Bukauskas remains focused on helping his team improve upon last year’s 12-13 season, which ended with a Virginia AAA Northern Region quarterfinal loss to Oakton. The Bulldogs are 9-1 so far this spring with 10 regular season games remaining.

“I’m sure I would be excited if I was selected,” Bukauskas said. “That would be a great opportunity, but it would be a tough decision to make.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said that the last baseball player from Loudoun County to be drafted directly out of high school was Broad Run High School’s Scott Schultz in 1991. Park View pitcher Joe Foote was selected in the 47th round by the Minnesota Twins in 1997. This version has been corrected.

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