This wasn’t exactly the ending Nationals reliever Sean Burnett envisioned in his first appearance after missing 10 days because of an irritated nerve in his left elbow: being pulled from Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets with two outs in the ninth inning. But the fact that he returned to a game, his pitches felt normal again and he felt fine afterward were accomplishments.
Burnett is a valuable piece of the National bullpen, a sinker-balling reliever who is effective against hitters from both sides of the plate and has been stellar setting up in the eighth inning this season. He will be particularly useful beginning Friday, when the Nationals open a three-game series against the Braves in Atlanta, a team susceptible to left-handed pitching. And now he was back just in time.
“Timing was a little off but that was to be expected after 10 days,” said Burnett following Wednesday’s 2-0 win. “But coming out of that felt good and still feels good, so that’s a positive.”
After playing only catch and throwing one bullpen session since Sept. 2, Johnson showed a lot of confidence in Burnett by bringing him in for a save situation of a 2-0 game after such a long layoff. He hoped Burnett would face just two left-handers and right-hander near the bottom of the Mets lineup because he didn’t want to use closer Tyler Clippard, who had pitched the previous two days, and backup closer Drew Storen.
Duda lined Burnett’s second pitch of the inning into right field for a single. Burnett recovered, notching the first out of the inning with a three-pitch strikeout of Kelly Shoppach, all on sinkers. Ike Davis worked Burnett to a seven-pitch at-bat but grounded out to first base for the second out. Johnson wanted Burnett to face only three batters, with Storen waiting to enter just in case. But because Johnson felt Burnett was throwing well and has built up enough confidence in him this season, he let him face light-hitting Andres Torres.
Torres lined the second pitch of the at-bat to left field for a single, pushing Duda to third base. Two runners were on with two outs. Johnson came to the mound, grabbed the ball from Burnett and he trudged off to the dugout. While it may not have been the ideal result, Johnson said Burnett threw the ball well and was pleased with his performance. Burnett’s sinker was hitting 89 to 91 mph on the radar gun, a comfortable and usual range.
“I thought he threw the ball good,” Johnson said. “The ball was coming out of his hands. I checked with [bullpen coach Jim Lett] and he said it was free and easy and the ball was coming out of his hand good. I didn’t see any problems tonight. He was good. He’s ready for Atlanta.”
Burnett admitted to leaving a few pitches up in the strike zone and being a little too amped up given the situation and long time off. Johnson asked Storen to notch the game’s final out, inheriting two batters. He got Daniel Murphy to pounce on a sinker and fly out to center field for the game’s final out and his second save of the season.
Though he couldn’t complete the inning, Burnett’s return is an encouraging sign for the Nationals. One of the most reliable relievers, temporarily halted by injury, was back and ready to face the Braves in an important series.
“It was nice to get in there and get my feet wet and face some left-handers because Atlanta has a few of them,” he said. “I think I’ll be good to go from now on.”
FROM TODAY’S POST
John Lannan steps in, tosses 5 2/3 innings; Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond both home and the Nationals sweep the Mets, 2-0, writes Adam Kilgore.
As his shutdown begins, Stephen Strasburg sits and watches, writes Barry Svrluga.
Baltimore Orioles proving they are much more than just a fluke, writes Thomas Boswell.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nats’ magic number for the division: 11
For a playoff spot: 5
Current NL playoff matchups
Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*
Reds vs. Giants
*Braves lead Cardinals by 5 1/2 games; Cardinals lead Dodgers by one game. The Pirates are 2.5 games back. And the Phillies and Brewers are suddenly only three games behind St. Louis. Even the Diamondbacks are now four games back.