Last night, Sean Burnett came in to face Jack Cust, two outs and a man on first. He threw Cust a sinker, he rolled a weak groundball toward second base. He could not have done his job better, but he was not rewarded. Danny Espinosa made a long run, to field the ball, but not in time to make the throw.
The play typified Burnett’s season – outs somehow finding a way to disguise themselves as hits, conspiring to ruin his day and raise his ERA. But Burnett’s reaction last night typified the recent change in his confidence, brought on by a stricter reliance on his sinker, his best pitch.
“I knew I made a great pitch on Cust,” Burnett said. “I felt confident. A couple weeks ago if that would have happened, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, here we go again. I can’t make the pitch I need to make.’ But I felt like I made a great pitch there. I just had to make another one just like that. That’s all I was trying to do.”
Burnett had to retire Ichiro Suzuki with two men on and two outs, in a one-run nail-biter. He threw Ichiro four sinkers. The last, Suzuki flailed at even though it almost hit him in the back foot. Only nine major leaguers swing and miss less than Suzuki, and Burnett had made him look foolish. “Unbelievable,” John Lannan said. “It has to have late movement, and that’s what he does.”
Burnett had escaped, and burnished his confidence. Professional athletes, by rule, do not expose or admit their own frailty. That makes Burnett an exception. He admitted that earlier this season, as his ERA rose to 5.96 and he could not figure himself out, he lost his nerve. That’s changed, too.
“I feel like I want the ball now, and I want to go out there and be the guy that gets outs,” Burnett said. “I was kind of doubting myself a month or a few weeks ago, to tell you the truth. It didn’t seem like I could make the pitch I wanted to make and get the out I needed to get. Now I feel completely different.”
Burnett has been a different pitcher his past four outings, walking one and allowing just that infield single to Cust. He feels like he can repeat his delivery and make the pitch he wants to. The reemergence of Burnett is no small thing – last year, he was one of the most dominant relievers in the league. He’s not back to that point yet, but he’s at least started.
“It’s unbelievable, the willpower he has to get over a rough patch,” Lannan said. “I went through one last year, and it took a lot to mentally overcome that. When you lose it, you have to have that confidence, and that’s obviously something that he has right now.”