As Sean Burnett’s shaky season worsened, he often said he could not figure out why he could not recapture his form from last season, when he became one of baseball’s best relievers. Over the past week, while his struggles kept him confined to the bullpen, he diagnosed one possible reason: He was letting hitters feast on his secondary pitches, and not forcing them to hit his sinker.
“I wasn’t getting beat with my best pitch the last month and a half,” Burnett said. “If I was going to get beat, I was going to start getting beat with my sinker. It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last week or so.”
Last year, according to date compiled by FanGraphs.com, Burnett threw his sinker 73.4 percent of the time. This year, that dropped to 68.8 percent. Burnett’s usage of his slider has remained constant at almost 20 percent, but he had been throwing far more changeups – he threw them 6.9 percent of the time last year and 11.7 percent of the time this season.
Last night, Burnett decided that would change. Of his 16 pitches, Burnett threw 14 sinkers, just two changeups. Both of those changeups were balls, intended only as a pitch a batter – he threw one to Holliday, one to Berkman – might chase out of the zone. To beat him, the Cardinals would have to hit his sinker. And they didn’t.
Burnett entered a tie game last night in the 10th inning with Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday due up. He had not pitched in a week, when he faced one batter in San Diego and walked him. That was a day after he surrendered two runs late in a tie game against the Giants, which shot his ERA to 5.96. He still wanted the chance to pitch last night.
“I just stopped thinking,” Burnett said. “Things have been going so bad, I figured, ‘Just go out there and throw it, see what happens.’ ”
Burnett threw Rasmus two sinkers and induced an easy groundout to second. Up came Pujols. Manager Jim Riggleman could have had Burnett intentionally walk him. Or, with right-handed Matt Holliday coming, Riggleman could have summoned Todd Coffey. Instead, he stuck with Burnett.
“I feel I’m capable of pitching in that situation,” Burnett said. “I know I haven’t thrown the ball very well. I don’t deserve that type of situation. It was a big confidence boost to get left in there and see if I could get through it.”
He threw Pujols three sinkers, and the third, Pujols popped to right. Two outs. Holliday came up, and Burnett decided he would be careful. Lance Berkman was on deck, and Burnett decided he didn’t want Holliday to beat him – he had faced Berkman nine times, and even though Berkman had hit a homer and walked three times in those meetings, Burnett felt comfortable facing him.
Even after Burnett got ahead of Holliday, 1-2, he wanted to be careful, and he threw three straight balls, two of them very close. Up came Berkman, with the go-ahead run on first. With the count 2-2, Burnett fired a sinker over the outside corner, maybe just off the corner. The home plate ump pumped his arms, strike three.
“There was a couple pitches that could have went either way that I didn’t get,” Burnett said. “All the stuff that’s gone on this year, I deserved a pitch maybe a little off.”
Burnett had kept the game tied, and minutes later Danny Espinosa would crush his walk-off homer, end the game and give Burnett a win. A week ago, Burnett could not figure out what had gone wrong. Now, maybe, Burnett can use last night as a springboard and things will start going right.
“It’s definitely a confidence boost to go through that 2-3-4-5 part of the order,” Burnett said. “Hopefully, I can get on a roll and get some confidence going. I’ve had good outings this year. I need to put a string of them together. But it’s a good start.”