SAN FRANCISCO — Sean Burnett strode to the AT&T Park mound Wednesday afternoon wearing red socks pulled high and baggy pants, a new look worn, perhaps, to change his fortune. He had developed an unkind knack for allowing cheap hits at the worst times, which had given him an unsightly ERA and a confluence of bad memories.
The Washington Nationals still held confidence that Burnett remained the pitcher who last year became one of baseball’s best relievers, the right man to call from the bullpen after Yunesky Maya offered his best start and left a tie game after six innings. “He’s the guy,” Manager Jim Riggleman said, “I wanted out there.”
By the time Burnett walked into the dugout, another nightmare in the books, the San Francisco Giants had turned a tie game into a 3-1 victory that wasted Maya’s six strong innings. Burnett allowed a go-ahead triple to rookie left-handed batter Brandon Crawford in the seventh inning, giving him his fourth loss this season and sending his ERA to 5.96.
“I’m just not executing when I need to,” Burnett said. “When I need to make a pitch, it’s just not there. It stinks. I’m giving away games. The team’s playing their butts off, and I come into the game and just give it away. I feel like I have to apologize to my teammates every outing.”
The hitters among them could apologize right back, having scored seven runs in the three-game series and only one Wednesday off Matt Cain, who pitched a five-hit complete game and struck out 11.
Maya still has not won a game in eight starts for the Nationals, but no longer can that be an indictment solely of his ability. Maya gave the Nationals every chance to claim their second series victory this season over the defending World Series champions, allowing one run over six innings. But the Nationals could not score runs while he was in the game or prevent them from being scored once he left.
Although Maya had thrown only 67 pitches Wednesday, he had shown a penchant for collapsing in one late inning. Riggleman chose to prevent that, and also to send a left-hander to the mound against Aubrey Huff, by pulling Maya for Burnett to start the seventh with the score 1-1.
“That’s a place in the game [Maya] hasn’t been yet,” Riggleman said. “I just felt we’d let our ballgame start clean. That’s a decision I would make again. I felt very confident Sean would go through that part of the inning.”
Burnett retired Huff on a dribbler with the first pitch. Cody Ross followed with a single to right, and with two outs Crawford came to the plate. Burnett had held lefties to a .200 batting average this season. When the count ran 3-2, Burnett hung a slider and Crawford crushed it – this was a bad pitch, not bad luck.
The ball bounded off the fence in right-center, allowing Ross to score and Crawford to speed to third for a triple. Eli Whiteside added another sharp single up the middle, scoring Crawford and giving the Giants a two-run lead.
After the game, a reporter asked Burnett if he still felt confident when he went to the mound. He let out an uneasy chuckle and sighed.
“Trying to,” Burnett said. “It’s snowballing. I’m trying to grab the reins and take control. It just comes down to making a pitch, and I’m not making it right now. It doesn’t look good.”
Maya submitted, by far, the best performance of his young career. He came into the game 0-5 with a 6.43 ERA in his career. Then he faced the minimum through five innings, pitching with staggering efficiency against a Giants lineup with no room for patience. He needed five pitches in the first inning, threw 46 through his first five innings and used only 67 through six.
“The tempo was great,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He was in and out of the dugout. He got the ball and pitched the ball. That’s what you to do. When the offense isn’t great, you have to keep the other team on its toes.”
Maya entered the sixth having allowed two singles, one erased on a double play and the other when Wilson Ramos gunned down a would-be base stealer at second. Whiteside poked a one-out double to left field, which did not seem harmful with the opposing pitcher coming to the plate. But Cain whacked a double to the gap in right-center, scoring Whiteside for the game’s first run.
Cain had dominated so thoroughly, allowing three base runners in the first six innings while striking out seven, that one run seemed like it might be enough.
Then Michael Morse led off the seventh with a single and lumbered 90 feet to steal second. With two outs and Morse on third, Rick Ankiel drilled a double down the line in right.
Cain stranded Ankiel at second with a grounder by Alex Cora, and he never came out of the game. The crowd showered him with an ovation when he jogged to the mound in the ninth.
The Nationals surely have their problems as an offense, especially without Jayson Werth in the lineup for the second straight day. Cain, though, was awfully good. In his 110-pitch outing, he threw just 32 balls.
The Nationals beat the Giants four times in their seven-game season series, and the three they lost were by one, one and two runs.
“We know we can beat them,” Desmond said. “We let them have this one. We definitely let them have it.”