Bourn turns over new leaf in 2009
Speedster more comfortable, set to raise walks, lower K's
KISSIMMEE, Fla -- Michael Bourn doesn't plan to dwell on anything that happened during the 2008 season, and to prove that he's truly wiped the slate clean, he began Spring Training this year with a new uniform number, chucking his old 14 for a brand new 21.
"New start, new beginning," Bourn said. "I feel a little more comfortable this year. I'm acclimated with the team now. I feel all right."
That's not to say he didn't feel fine this time last year, but he's hoping his season ends with better results the second time around. Bourn, named by manager Cecil Cooper the "igniter" immediately after he was traded to Houston, was given a hefty assignment of taking over the leadoff spot and the every day job in center field. Despite Bourn's inexperience -- he had less than one full season in the big leagues -- hope, along with quite a bit of pressure, was heaped on him from Day 1.
That's all behind him now. Cooper, realizing it was probably a little too much, too soon, plans to ease up on Bourn a bit. The 26-year-old is still the starting center fielder, but he'll hit lower in the order, where on-base percentage and batting average aren't as closely scrutinized. Eventually, Cooper hopes Bourn will make his way back up to the top spot, but for now, that job goes to Kazuo Matsui.
Bourn is ready to start over in some ways, but what he'd really like to do is continue what he started during six weeks of winter ball. True to his promise, Bourn worked on two main areas of his game -- walking more and striking out less.
"And staying inside the ball when I'm hitting," he added. "I grounded to second base so many times last year. I knew what I was doing, but it was like, 'What am I doing wrong?' It's just something you have to figure out."
Winter ball stats can be misleading, but for Bourn, it's something to build on. Over 25 games for Aguilas in the Dominican League, he hit .314 (32-for-102) with eight doubles, 11 RBIs and a .402 on-base percentage. He drew 15 walks and struck out 24 times.
Bourn worked closely with the hitting coach, but he was also given his space to work at his own pace, on his own terms.
"I was just doing my thing," he said. "They really didn't mess with me too much. The hitting coach just told me he's going to fix me. He's not going to help me, he's just going to help fix whatever I was doing wrong; he'll help me fix it. Even if I was 0-for-10, he wasn't messing with me. I'd go out there the next game and try to fix it myself."
The caliber of pitching Bourn faced was of a different quality than Major League pitching, but intensity-wise, the atmosphere suited him well. Thousands pack the stadiums in the Dominican, where "they live and breathe baseball," Bourn said. "And for girls, it's tennis. That's pretty much all they do, in every city you go to, no matter where you're at. You come up to the field and see a whole bunch of kids running around waiting for you. They love the game."
And they love talking about it, as well as letting a player know when there's room for improvement.
"When you come back to the hotel where we stayed, everybody knows the game was on," Bourn said. "If you had a bad game, you get in a cab and the cab driver is going to let you know: 'Oh, no good game today. Three-for-oh.' They pay attention down there."
They do in the States, too, and Bourn knows he'll have to show an improvement over 2008. Last year, he hit .229 with a .288 on-base percentage, poor numbers no matter where he hit in the lineup. Houston's front office sees Bourn as a work in progress, one who needs more Major League at-bats before a true evaluation can be finalized.
But despite Bourn's good standing with the Astros, he's taking nothing for granted. He doesn't assume he has a job, opting instead to approach it as something he needs to win every year, regardless of the previous year's results.
"A new year is a new year," Bourn said. "What you did last year is over with. Even if you hit .400 the year before, if you come back and hit .240, after you hit .400, people are going to say, 'What happened to him?' You have to take the season seriously."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.