James Bourque started Saturday’s sim game at Nats Park. It was good for the right-hander to get some work in, because the Nationals will have five days between their last game, against the Blue Jays, and their next matchup, Tuesday against the Mets.
Bourque pitched an inning against the Yankees July 25 and then 1/3 of an inning July 28 against the Blue Jays. So he will go a minimum of seven days without game appearances. And he’s not the only one. Saturday was an important opportunity for Bourque and other bullpen arms that have not pitched in a while.
Bourque, 27, pitched well in spring training before the coronavirus shutdown and learned a lot from that rough appearance last May against the Marlins. In that one appearance, the right-hander allowed four runs on three hits and two walks in just 2/3 of an inning against the Marlins. But this March in West Palm Beach, Fla., he made strides forward, making six appearances and compiling an 0-1 record with a 2.84 ERA.
“Last year didn’t go very well and I learned from that,” Bourque said. “Being around the guys you just see they all go about their work really well and they are all pretty dedicated. But they also know who they are, they trust their stuff. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned.
“Once you are here, you are here for a reason. You are good enough to be here that you don’t need to do anything spectacular, you can just go out and be who you are. I kind of embraced that in spring training and that helped out. I had some success there. Going to try to bring that into the regular season.”
It is that confidence and ability that the Nats saw in Bourque, two of the big reasons he made the opening day roster. Manager Davey Martinez let Bourque know that he was on the 30-man roster to begin the season last week against the Yankees. Bourque said even though it’s an abbreviated season, it’s still a huge moment in his career to make the team.
“It’s still an honor and it still felt good to get that confirmation from Davey,” Bourque said. “Especially with the whole ring ceremony and no fans being there for that. It’s definitely different. I think that if the season had gone normally you’d still hope to be on that opening day roster. But under the circumstances you still go to take it, you still got to run with the opportunity. I think that’s how you have to approach it.”
And in a season when there are no fans at the games, Bourque said nothing changes about his mentality when he gets to the mound. He focuses on throwing strikes and getting outs.
“It’s definitely different,” Bourque said. “It’s kind of strange. Pretty much everyone has said what it’s like to come to the ballpark and be at the field with no fans. But I think some of the younger guys that are closer to the minor leagues are used to this, just because there are a lot of games in the minor leagues where you are not getting any fans in the games.
“So, for me, once you get on the mound it feels the same. But it is a little bit strange, the pregame routine and being out in the bullpen. Those are things that will take a little bit of an adjustment and kind of keep your focus up the whole time.”
Bourque said that during the COVID-19 shutdown he was lucky to live close by fellow pitcher Austen Williams in Texas. They worked out together and kept each other’s spirits up without real baseball to play.
“It was pretty important to stay ready to go,” Bourque said during last week’s Zoom call. “I was fortunate enough to be close to teammate Austen Williams at his house in Texas, and we were able to do stuff together, work out and stay in shape. We were pretty fortunate.”
In two appearances this season, Bourque has relied on his four-seam fastball and curveball. Bourque said last week he worked on his breaking pitch and improving his changeup during summer training. He has yet to let loose with a changeup in a big league game this season.
“It was just working on throwing the breaking ball for strikes,” Bourque said. “Going like 0-0, throwing the breaking ball for strikes. That’s the biggest focus for me. If I can get ahead I feel pretty good about where I am at.
“Also working on trying to develop a changeup. Not necessarily develop it, but have confidence throwing it to lefties and righties. We worked on that in summer camp and feel pretty good about.”