Right-hander James Bourque spent his first few seasons in the system as a starter. But last season, he was moved to the bullpen.
Bourque, 25, pitched well at the University of Michigan and caught the eye of the Nationals’ area scout. In the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, the Nats selected the right-hander in the 14th round. But early on as a starter, he recorded a 5.05 ERA in 40 starts over two seasons for low Single-A Hagerstown.
The Nats then decided to move Bourque from starter to reliever for this past season.
In 2018, he relieved exclusively, making 26 appearances at high Single-A Potomac. He shone in this new role, going 3-2 with a 2.16 ERA and five saves. He fired an impressive 52 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. His WHIP was 0.93. After his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg, he did even better, 1-0 with a 0.92 ERA in 19 2/3 innings over 15 games.
“Yeah, I was pretty happy with the season,” Bourque said. “I think first full year as a reliever had to learn some things first couple of weeks, first month or so. And got into a routine, built some confidence and then carried that throughout the year. So I was pretty pleased with that.”
This move to bullpen worked so well that the Nats placed Bourque on the 40-man roster in November.
“Always exciting when you get that phone call,” Bourque said at Winterfest on Sunday. “It’s the first step towards making a dream come true. It was a good feeling. So I was with my parents, luckily, because it was right before Thanksgiving. Told them, they were pretty pumped. And then I texted some of my old coaches, high school and college teammates. After that, I was getting texts from a bunch of people so kind of people close to me first.”
At the end of this season, Bourque pitched in the instructional league for the Nationals. That is where Nats pitching coordinator Paul Menhart noticed his leadership abilities.
“I’ll throw James Bourque in there because he was down here as well, working on his fastball command,” Menhart noted back in October. “We didn’t even let him throw a curveball down here. I think he had a nice lesson and believes now that he can get guys out with his fastball. He doesn’t always have to go to that curveball. He definitely got better, too. He has a better understanding of how to pitch.”
Bourque said Menhart told him last March that the organization would transition him to the bullpen. Fast forward to instructional league, where he worked with Menhart again. That is where they steered away from the curveball. Bourque said the coaches also concentrated on fine-tuning his changeup.
“I think in spring training it was kind of more mental, so I was talking to (Menhart). He said, ‘Hey, just go out and do your thing, have some confidence and we are going to put you in the bullpen and enjoy it.’
“And then went down to instructs this year and started working on a changeup, which I previously threw as a starter but didn’t really get to use this season. I didn’t really feel like breaking it out middle of the year, trying to work on it. That’s kind of been the focus this offseason, adding that third pitch but still making sure the fastball (and) curveball are sharp.”
Bourque said he learned during the transition from starter to reliever that, in the latter role, one has to develop a thick skin and a short memory. If you give up a big hit here or there, you have to forget it and move on. As a starter, you might have four or five innings to erase the mistake. As a reliever, you have to do it the next game.
“I think that starting you get those four days to sit and think about your last outing, and when I was in Hagerstown, a lot of those outings weren’t very good,” Bourque said. “I think having to come back quickly - you know, the next day you have to be ready to go. So if it was awful the day before, then you forget about it. If it was great the day before, then you still got to be ready. I think that mental transition was big.”
Now with Bourque on the 40-man, expect the right-hander to begin the season at least at Double-A Harrisburg and to pick up where he left off. But this time, with his solid fastball command, his lethal curveball and a reintroduction of his changeup, Bourque is ready to take that next step up the chain.