The high Single-A Potomac Nationals made it all the way to the Mills Cup Final with a complete team in 2018. A big part of their success came courtesy of the potent and out-eating bullpen.
Right-hander James Bourque was a major link in that relieving corps before his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg on July 13. After the season was completed, the Nationals signaled what they think of the Michigan product by placing him on the 40-man roster.
Potomac manager Tripp Keister said the P-Nats used Bourque in late-game situations to work at least two innings each outing. He logged two innings 11 times for the team, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.16 ERA in 26 appearances.
“Yes, he really thrived in the bullpen in that role,” Keister said. “We move around guys, so I wouldn’t say he was our closer. He pitched at the end of the game. Did he get a bunch of saves? I think he did (five saves in seven opportunities). He had a bunch of two-inning stints. He wasn’t just a one-inning guy. We wanted to make sure we kept him at two innings.
“We didn’t want him to have too many outings where he was just pitching the ninth or pitching the eighth. We wanted to make sure he was able to go multiple innings, multiple ups to keep that part of his game, depending on how he was going to be used at levels higher than us.”
Keister said Bourque, 25, used his fastball and curveball to get outs, the curveball being the pitch that put away hitters.
“He’s got mid-to-upper 90s mph fastball, probably pitches at 95, 96 mph, 94-96 mph, pitches at 95 mph,” Keister said. “But his best go-to pitch, what he loves to do is throw that curveball. He could throw it for strikes. He could throw it for swings and misses. It’s a plus-plus curveball. It’s a true curveball, too. It’s not a slider. Really tough. Looking at his splits, really tough on lefties and righties. He throws it to both. Works fast. Obviously, all the intangibles: presence, intelligence.”
Keister said Bourque continued all season working on controlling the fastball. It was a focus at instructional league workouts with Nationals pitching coordinator Paul Menhart.
“He’s got to command the fastball,” Keister said. “I mean, at the end of the day that’s where he is. He’s got to command his fastball. Got to throw more strikes with his fastball, and that’s why he stayed where he stayed and that’s what we were working on. Apparently, when he went to Double-A, he did a much better job of that. At our level he would throw that breaking ball and nobody would hit it. He didn’t throw as many fastballs at our level. He worked on command of the fastball at Double-A and I heard he did really well.”
Bourque pitched in 15 games at Double-A and allowed only two earned runs in 19 2/3 innings. Bourque said at Nats WinterFest he also has worked on repetition with his changeup so that all three pitches will be strong for 2019.
“He’s got feel for that changeup, too. He definitely does,” Keister said. “That’s not a pitch I would leave in his back pocket. He’s got a feel for it, but he doesn’t throw it much. He runs in that curveball and it’s a wipeout pitch. It’s a good pitch, and that’s his out pitch and he’s going to get some outs with that pitch.”
Menhart further noted Bourque’s leadership role in his instructional league work. Keister said Bourque demonstrated his ability to lead by example in late-game situations for the P-Nats.
“He’s not afraid of the moment, either,” Keister said. “He likes pitching at the end of the game, gets his adrenaline going and he wants the ball, all those intangibles that you talk about relievers at the end of the game. It’s fun to watch.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-lb. hurler will most likely begin 2019 at Harrisburg and continue to work his way up the chain. With positive results from commanding his fastball, a lethal wipeout curveball and an effective changeup, Bourque is getting closer to his ultimate goal.