By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published June 11, 2014
Last Saturday, two Michigan baseball juniors were given an opportunity to play professional baseball. But they started to earn that opportunity years earlier, as teammates years before joining the Wolverines.
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The Washington Nationals took right-hander James Bourque in the 14th round, and the Detroit Tigers took left-hander Trent Szkutnik six rounds later. Both travelled to Florida this week to undergo physicals and sign with their respective teams.
During the season, the two were key components on one of the Big Ten’s premier pitching staffs. But their history together extends before 2014, or even their three-year careers at Michigan.
Bourque and Szkutnik became teammates at age 14, as a part of an Ann Arbor Travelers team that produced 20 Division I baseball players and five members of the 2014 Michigan baseball team, and have been friends since.
Now, the two starkly different players will finally play for different teams, chasing their longtime dreams of making the show in the process.
To say Szkutnik and Bourque are different types of pitchers would be an understatement. Szkutnik, the 6-foot left-handed ace of Michigan’s staff, boasts a solid four-pitch arsenal with the same fluid motion he’s had since middle school.
“Trent’s always been advanced physically,” said Travelers coach Jordon Banfield, now an assistant at Illinois-Springfield. “The biggest thing for him was getting the mental ability down to be a next-level pitcher, but he’s always been an advanced pitcher.”
Bourque, who arrived to campus as a 6-foot-4, 175-pound right-hander, was far from an ace, and was dangerously close to quitting baseball altogether in high school. But after working with the Travelers and Wolverines, the junior has added 20 pounds to his long frame and sports a fastball that can now reach 96 miles per hour.
“When James came to me, he was 14, 5-foot-7, 110 pounds and threw 70 miles an hour,” Banfield said. “He kept growing and developing physically, but it wasn’t until later on in high school that he was looking like a real prospect pitcher. He was interested in other sports and was looking at schools for academics, and I had to push him and his family to stick with baseball.”
Added Bourque: “Jordan’s always believed in me. He gave me a chance to play travel baseball when there weren’t very many teams out there. I wasn’t the biggest kid or strongest kid, but he worked with me every offseason and kept me in baseball.”
Despite the differences, both were given an opportunity to play under Banfield at age 14.
The energetic and relentless training of Banfield, then 23, allowed both players to develop into college-ready pitchers.
The Travelers — a squad that also included Michigan juniors Donnie Eaton and Kyle Jusick and sophomore Travis Maezes — won 20 tournament titles and became the first Michigan team to qualify for back-to-back Connie Mack World Series, but it was the offseason training and dedication by Banfield that had the greatest impact.
“Everyone on that team improved an unbelievable amount,” Szkutnik said. “It really speaks to the passion (Banfield) showed to us on and off the field. Whenever anyone wanted to hit or throw or work on something, he was there to make it happen.”
The journeys contrasted, but when Bourque committed to Michigan the spring of his senior year, the two were going to continue to be teammates at the next level.
At Michigan, both pitchers improved each year until 2014, when the possibility of being drafted became more possible than ever for both.
Szkutnik posted a 3.38 earned-run average and 57 strikeouts in 15 starts for the Wolverines, while Bourque pitched 40.1 innings in 25 appearances on the mound, striking out 33 and holding opponents to a .247 batting average.
“We used to joke around that we can’t wait until we get drafted our junior year,” Bourque said. “But the closer we got, the more it became a possibility. Looking back, the odds were so slim, but the help we had and the work we all put in made it happen.”
Following draft day, the two have both made their respective trips to Florida to sign major-league contracts, as the former Ann Arbor Travelers finally travel away from Ann Arbor.
They won’t be teammates anymore, but after seven years alongside each other, there’s no questioning the day nearly every kid dreams about was even more special when shared with a long-time teammate.
“The friends I’ve made is one of the biggest reasons I love baseball,” Szkutnik said. “It’s a ton of fun seeing us all move on to bigger opportunities. Hopefully we can all keep it going for a long time.”
Added Banfield: “As a program, we met every one of our goals. Twenty Division I players, four players drafted now and there’s definitely still a family and everyone stays in touch. Even though the team's in the past, I tell them all that I’m happy to help if they want to keep working. All I ask in return is tickets to their first games.”