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PAPILLION — The picture now has the same qualities of the man in it. A surreal moment of “Did that really happen?” nostalgia.

There sits 19-year-old Bubba Starling, big grin painted across his face, Sharpie in his right hand and a red No. 16 Nebraska football jersey stretched across his shoulders.

He was the star attraction of that Nebraska football Fan Day back in 2011, Paul Bunyan in scarlet and cream, a mythical figure whose football highlights were only surpassed by his tape-measure home runs for Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas near Kansas City.

Starling was a legend in Kansas before he got his diploma. Then the major-league baseball team just up the road made him the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft and offered him $7.5 million to walk away from big-man-on-campus status in Lincoln.

Almost six years later, Starling leans up against a utility vehicle at Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers. He's the most imposing figure in a clubhouse full of guys one step away from playing major-league baseball.

He looks comfortable. At ease with himself.  Like a man who maybe, after what seems like forever, has finally hit his stride in professional baseball.

In reality, Starling is just 24 years old. But in April, after maybe the worst stretch of his athletic career, he started to wonder, ever so briefly, if there was a future on the diamond.

"It's no different than when you're on the golf course and shoot a bad round. It's like, 'Man, I'm done. I'm never playing golf again.' But then you're back out there the next week," Starling said. "But I just stuck with it, man. Just got through the mental side of it and here I am."

Where Starling is, is playing the best baseball of his professional career. A torrid streak in June has him hitting .307 for the month despite an 0-for-5 performance Friday night. His three home runs through the month's first 18 games are one more than he had the first two months of the season.

"People don't realize baseball was probably, I won't say his worst sport, because he was good at all of them (coming out of high school), but it was probably third on his list," said Omaha manager Brian Poldberg. "And some guys it takes five years; some guys it takes three. Everyone has their own timeline, and the way it's looking right now, it looks like he's coming into his timeline."

The timeline was stalled in April, when Starling hit .129 while striking out 21 times in 62 at-bats and collecting just eight hits.

Entering his sixth season of professional baseball, Starling had reached perhaps his lowest point.

"It was a tough first month, obviously. I was hitting a buck-whatever; I was down in the dumps," Starling said. "But I just kept showing up and working hard every day."

The simple explanation, and one Starling is quick to point to, comes from a change to his batting stance from Omaha hitting coach Tommy Gregg during a road trip to Salt Lake City in early May. After nearly two seasons of tinkering, Starling and Gregg appear to have unlocked a door.

But it's never simple when you're a local legend playing for the local team, and an entire region's eyeballs are trained on your every move.

"It's always weighed on him because he knows the expectations, and he's got expectations of himself, also," Poldberg said. "So when he wasn't doing well, it was churning up there. You could see it."

Starling's physical gifts helped keep him afloat in a sea of mental turmoil. He remains, six years on, one of the best athletes in the Royals' system. His glove and arm have few peers in the outfield. His speed still drops jaws for a man of his size — 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds.

"It was really tough. But that's what my teammates, family, coaches — they were there for me when I was struggling," Starling said. "I continued to be a good teammate; tried to pick guys up. They were picking me up, too, so it was kind of a group thing, you know?"

Turning inward helped Starling tune out the outside voices that got louder with every strikeout. The success at the plate freed his mind to focus on the one-on-one battles between hitter and pitcher rather than worry about trying to simply find a way to put the bat on the ball. 

"Just going out and relaxing every game and not giving a crap about what other people think of what I'm doing," is how Starling puts it. "I feel like it's mano a mano versus that pitcher now. It used to be, 'Man, I'm just trying to put the ball in play and not strike out.' 

"Now it's me: Where am I going to hit this ball. I'm thinking about success more than failure now."

There is a long summer ahead, and Starling is only a few weeks into his turnaround. He's the first to admit there's still a lot of work to be done. But with a newfound confidence, and a spot already secured on Kansas City's 40-man roster, he says it's only natural to think about that long-awaited call to The Show when MLB rosters expand Sept. 1.

"Obviously you have guys here that get called up and you kind of ask them: 'How was it up there? How was everything?'" Starling said. "You're excited for them but at the same time you just want to keep working and hopefully that will be you someday soon."

Starling still follows Nebraska football. He's excited for the upcoming season. Doesn't get to many games, though. Only two or three since that summer when Nebraska fans and media followed his every move and a crescendo slowly built from the day he signed a national letter of intent in February 2010 to the late night of Aug. 15 the same year when he inked with the Royals just a few minutes before the signing deadline.

Visiting Memorial Stadium doesn't really stir much in the way of regrets, either. Even if he knows in his heart he could have made an impact at NU.

"Football was definitely my passion (in high school) and was at the top. But for the Royals to draft me where they did and put their investment into me, it was really special," Starling said. "I'm still happy with the route I chose and happy with where I'm at right now."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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