Ross returns to Fresno to be stretched out, Bourque promoted

The Nationals converted Joe Ross into a reliever earlier this season, hoping the career change might both reinvigorate the erratic right-hander and help address the big league club’s biggest need.

Two months later, the Nats are shipping Ross back to the minors and appear to be converting him back into a starter.

Ross was optioned to Triple-A Fresno this morning, his ERA (9.22) and WHIP (1.829) too high to warrant continued opportunities out of the major league bullpen. The Nationals promoted right-hander James Bourque from Double-A to make his major league debut, hoping the 25-year-old’s dominance at Harrisburg can translate in Washington.

Manager Davey Martinez said Ross will be “stretched out again” in Fresno, suggesting the righty will be prepped to start again after the failed bullpen experiment this season.

Ross-Pitch-Blue-sidebar.jpg“We’re not giving up on Joe, that’s for sure,” Martinez said. “Joe, like we’ve told him before, he’s the future. Out of necessity, we’ve used him in the bullpen. I still believe that somewhere down the road, he’ll get an opportunity to start again.”

Long touted as a piece of their long-term rotation, Ross spent most of last season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He reported to spring training, ostensibly to be a starter, but by the time the team broke camp, he was headed to Fresno to pitch as a reliever.

And when the Nationals immediately needed bullpen help, they promoted Ross. After a shaky season debut, he impressed with six consecutive scoreless appearances. But he has regressed since then, and in nine May appearances allowed 12 runs (11 earned), 11 hits, five walks and three hit batters in only 6 2/3 innings.

The club will hope he can get his full repertoire (fastball, slider, changeup) back in order while making longer appearances in the minors.

“I think this gives him an opportunity to just go out there and get comfortable, stretch him out and really hone in on (his pitches),” Martinez said. “At one point, he had an unbelievable slider. Let’s see if we can get his slider back a little bit and get his changeup back against left-handed hitters.”

Ross’ departure opened the door for Bourque, who earned a promotion straight from Double-A thanks to a dominant two months in which he posted a 1.33 ERA while striking out 33 batters and issuing only six walks in 20 1/3 innings.

Formerly a failed starter himself after he was a 14th round pick from the University of Michigan in 2014, Bourque remade himself into a dominant reliever last season, with a 1.70 ERA and 1.057 WHIP at Harrisburg and Single-A Potomac.

The right-hander, who sports a handlebar mustache, said he having dinner with a friends in Harrisburg on Friday night and got a call on his cell phone from a number with a South Carolina area code. He quickly figured out it must be Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy and then guessed correctly what he was about to be told.

“You’re kind of shaking a little bit,” he said. “You think you know it’s coming, and you hear it and you’re like: ‘Wow, all right.’ I don’t know if it’s really hit me yet, but I think once we get out there everything will be real life and we’ll be ready to go.”

Bourque, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., said his parents got in their car at 7 a.m. and are driving straight to D.C. to see his debut. He has a few friends from Chicago who drove through the night to get here.

Asked if he’ll keep the mustache, he replied: “I’ve got to, right? I mean, I already took the ugly headshot with it. I gotta keep it rolling, right?”

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