Sean Burnett throws bullpen session, could return Wednesday

Pat Sullivan / AP

Sean Burnett, one of the Nationals‘ most valuable and reliable relievers, threw about 15 pitches in a bullpen session on Monday in New York, the first time he has thrown off the mound since being held out of game for over a week with nerve irritation in his throwing elbow. After a day off on Tuesday, he could return to pitching in games on Wednesday.

The discomfort in his elbow was causing tightness in his forearm and, as a result, he was “cutting” off his pitches earlier than usual and his breaking balls weren’t moving like they used to.

On Monday, he said he threw the ball like he normally would warming up in the bullpen before a game and it all felt close to normal again. Burnett didn’t suffer any pain but acknowledged it wasn’t 100 percent.

“It was just more typical ball flight that I’m used to seeing and movement,” he said. “It probably hadn’t been like that in two, three weeks.”

Burnett played catch on Saturday and Sunday and it went off without a hitch. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said he wants to give the left-hander a day off on Tuesday to rest and potentially be ready to return to pitching in games on Wednesday if all goes well.

Burnett, who had Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in 2004, said he hasn’t had an MRI exam on his elbow because he is fearful of what it’ll reveal. “I’ve already had surgeries on it,” he said. “It’s not going to look pretty.”

Burnett passed all the ligaments tests and they didn’t reveal any damage. “Just a little nerve irritation or tightness,” he said. “We don’t know if it was the nerve. We assume with the symptoms it might have been a little nerve irritation, with the forearm being tight. But as long as there was no structural damage, which they tested me out on, that was my biggest concern.”

Burnett last pitched on Sept. 2 against the St. Louis Cardinals but the Nationals decided following the rocky outing to rest the left-hander upon discovering he was suffering from nerve irritation in his left elbow. He has received treatment for the pain, taking anti-inflammatory medicine and resting.

Burnett dealt with some tightness in the same elbow in mid-July. He wasn’t placed on the disabled list then, received treatment and his performance didn’t suffer. But his recent pain is a likely reason for his recent small slide over the past few weeks.

Burnett is enjoying a stellar season, his best since 2010. Despite a recent minor blip, he is second among Nationals relievers with a 2.49 ERA and has a 5.00 strikeout to walk ratio, a career high. He is a valuable setup man in the eighth inning, his sinker effective against both left-handed and right-handed batters. He is also an important reliever when the Nationals face the left-handed heavy Atlanta Braves in a three-game series beginning Friday.

“They had to convince me of [resting],” Burnett said. “That was hard for me. It feels like it’s been a month for me. But it got to a point where it wasn’t fair for me, it wasn’t fair to my teammates to go out there not 100 percent, in a pennant race, and put stuff in jeopardy. It wasn’t right to my teammates. But I felt like a week off would freshen me up a little bit and hopefully get back with no pain.”

Burnett wanted to pitch on Tuesday, but Johnson insists that the reliever rest one day first. “I would expect that of Sean, my riverboat gambler,” he said.

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