Don’t Stop Believin’

By JOE McFARLAND

The moment is still fresh in the mind of Landen Bourassa.

After retiring San Diego State’s Casey Schmitt with a flyball to open up the fourth inning, the University of San Francisco starter worked up a 1-and-1 count against Jacob Maekawa.

His next pitch changed the trajectory of his 2019 season.

“It was like a fastball I tried to throw and I just felt my elbow come apart,” the Lethbridge native recalled. “The ball kind of went down and in, arm side.”

Bourassa knew what it was right away, but thought he might be able to power through the pain.

“I got the ball back and said I gotta figure out what I got left,” Bourassa told Alberta Dugout Stories. “I tried to throw another one, tried to grip it and rip it, as hard as I could and it didn’t even make it to the plate.”

Maekawa would take the eventual walk and Bourassa was pulled from the game. An MRI would confirm Bourassa’s belief: he would need Tommy John surgery to repair damage in his throwing arm. The road ahead would be a long one, but the young hurler was ready to seize the opportunity.

After all, believing in himself is a theme that runs throughout his baseball career.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

A devastating elbow injury can wreak havoc on a young pitcher if they aren’t ready for the journey that lies ahead.

Bourassa admits he was coming off a great summer and thought 2019 would be the year he was drafted by a Major League Baseball team and maybe given an opportunity to play professionally.

So when his season ended during his first start of the college baseball campaign, he admits he was upset for a couple of days. Then he knew it was time to get to work.

“Honestly, I would put it up there as one of the best years of my life as far as understanding and getting to know myself a little bit better,” Bourassa said.

His response might have come as a surprise to many, but he viewed it as an opportunity. One of the first people he saw after the surgery was Dons’ head coach Nino Giarratano, who assured him that he had a scholarship waiting for him upon his return.

“He has been absolutely amazing,” Bourassa said of his coach. “I love that guy.”

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-hander leaned on the staff, trainers and his teammates as he began his recovery. One thing that stuck out to him though came from the man who performed the operation on him: San Francisco Giants surgeon Dr. Kenneth Akizuki.

“He told me I had a year to work on every other part of my game outside of throwing,” Bourassa reminsced. “I’ve added a lot of muscle mass to my body, really worked on my nutrition, sleeping, all kinds of things to put myself in the best spot possible.”

And he circled February 16, 2020 on the calendar. One year to the date of his last appearance on the mound.

AMERICAN LEGION TO AMERICAN COLLEGE

While some may have thought it was a lofty goal to get back on the mound that quickly, Bourassa is used to proving people wrong.

He fell in love with the game at a young age after his father, Tom, put a baseball in his hand. He was always playing in the backyard or in the basement during the winter, hoping to one day follow in the footsteps of his idols on the Toronto Blue Jays like Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay.

But unlike many others in Alberta, he didn’t go to an academy to improve his skills. He starred for the Lethbridge Elks in American Legion baseball while going to school at Chinook High School.

After graduation, Bourassa didn’t get any offers to head stateside to keep playing baseball. So he picked the brain of someone who had been down a similar path: coach Kenny Fuglerud.

The former Lethbridge Bulls star was the Western Major Baseball League (now Western Canadian Baseball League) most valuable player in 2007 and was the St. Mary’s University MVP after hitting .351 with the Gaels the following spring.

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Landen Bourassa poses for USF picture day. (Photo credit: USF Dons website)

Bourassa knew he not only wanted to play in U.S. college, but he wanted to play NCAA Division 1 baseball. He latched onto Fuglerud, who offered another piece of advice that he still holds close to his heart.

“If you want to play, you just have to find a spot,” Bourassa recalled of what Fuglerud said. “There are enough schools out there, you just have to find somewhere.”

After sending out nearly a dozen messages to prospective coaches, he finally got a response from coach Josh Blunt at Lane Community College in Oregon. Bourassa said he only threw 78 miles per hour “but a tonne of strikes” in his first bullpen session.

He wasn’t offered a spot in the starting rotation, but was given the opportunity to redshirt in his first season. He jumped at the chance and used it to learn from the veterans on the team.

The wait was worth it in the long run for Bourassa, who posted a 9-4 record with a 2.63 ERA including 82 strikeouts in his two seasons, earning first team NWAC All-Region pitcher recognition.

He also had the opportunity to come back home to play for the WMBL’s Bulls. Suiting up for the team he grew up watching and cheering for is something he will always cherish.

He was also given an opportunity to keep his college career alive as he committed to the University of San Francisco.

BELIEVING IN HIMSELF

Serving as the Dons’ Sunday starter in 2018, Bourassa went 8-4 with a 3.02 ERA including 61 strikeouts. He also pitched into the sixth inning or beyond in 12 of his 14 starts, including four starts with seven innings or more.

That summer, he starred with the Corvalis Knights of the West Coast League.

The workhorse was hoping to replicate that heading into 2019 before the injury derailed his season.

His goals going into this spring are pretty straight-forward: stay healthy and win. Heading into his senior season, he knows his time in post-secondary school is running out.

“It’s more about the people and it’s more about the journey and everything,” Bourassa said. “You don’t have to worry about the results, they are just going to happen.”

He is also serving as one of the team captains, showing the way for the younger players and giving back the same way older players did for him.

The part he was looking forward to the most heading into the season was that date he had circled on his calendar. Pitching in an intrasquad game gave him the confidence he needed to know he would be back.

“I couldn’t help but have the biggest smile on my face,” Bourassa laughed.

His return to a real game is what he’s been dreaming about for a year. While he has taken part in bullpen sessions, practices, scrimmages and sat in the dugout for games, it’s different actually putting a toe on the rubber.

“Probably try not to cry,” Bourassa laughed again when asked about what will be going through his mind for that first game. “Just being so happy to get back out there. That’s all I’ve thought about.”

From the sound of the anthems to the clamouring in the stands, he could envision it all. He has never doubted himself and hopes that young Alberta baseball players are able to use his example for themselves.

“There is no one way of doing something,” Bourassa said. “It comes down to self-belief and the work you’re able to put in every single day with that constant goal in mind.”

He believes Alberta is producing more high-end baseball talent and the world is watching, especially with Calgary product and former foe on the field Mike Soroka’s meteoric rise with the Atlanta Braves.

“I think that kids – and people in general – have a hard time betting on themselves,” Bourassa stated. “I think for me, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a Division 1 player.”

And he was able to return to that role, starting for the Dons as scheduled on Sunday. In two innings of work, he allowed two hits and a run.

“Happy to be back to it,” Bourassa texted after the game.

Another moment he won’t soon forget.

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