By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
TORONTO, June 27 -- There was a time in December when hope filled a Dallas hotel suite, one packed with executives from the Washington Nationals. General Manager Jim Bowden worked the winter meetings, browbeating agents and other general managers, trying to make a splash. And there was no splashier commodity on the free agent market than A.J. Burnett, a flamethrowing right-hander who had flamed out with the Florida Marlins. Burnett was ready for a change. Bowden wanted him badly.
Bowden and the Nationals, though, couldn't offer what the Toronto Blue Jays could, namely five years and $55 million. Tuesday night, the Nationals discovered exactly what kind of pitcher that money buys these days. Burnett dominated Washington in a 6-0 shutout, allowing all of six singles to the Nationals, who flailed away to little avail.
"That guy, every time he goes out there," second baseman Jose Vidro said, "he has no-hit stuff."
Burnett didn't quite manage that, but he might have come close. This is a pitcher who signed that contract -- eschewing, among other deals, a four-year, $40 million offer granted by the Nationals -- not so much for what he had done, but for what he can do. He entered this season with a career record of 49-50, never earning more than 12 wins in a single season. That he will earn $11 million a year says something not only about the market for free agent pitchers last offseason, but the kind of arm Burnett possesses, as lively and electric as they come.
"I felt real loose," was Burnett's succinct assessment afterward, and when you possess a fastball that regularly registers at 96 mph and a curve that starts in the lower half of the strike zone and then drops out, why wouldn't you be? Ramon Ortiz, the Nationals' starter, threw well enough, allowing four hits in 6 2/3 innings, including homers to Aaron Hill and Lyle Overbay. But when he looked across and saw Burnett pitching to his teammates, he wasn't encouraged.
"I feel good," Ortiz said. "I throw the ball well. But Burnett, it's like, 'Wow!' "
That's what can earn you such a contract, the Wow Factor. Toronto fans, though, hadn't seen this from their new acquisition. This was just Burnett's second start since coming off the disabled list, where he spent just more than two months with elbow soreness. There was a point when Jays fans had to think, "Fifty-five million dollars -- for this?"
But with a banner draped from the upper deck at Rogers Center stating simply, "He's Back," Burnett needed 92 pitches to throw not only his ninth career shutout but to pick up his first win as a Blue Jay. The performance was at once overpowering and economical. He struck out seven, didn't walk a batter, started 25 of the 31 men he faced with strikes and didn't throw three balls to any National.
"You can't really sit on this guy and take pitches," Vidro said. "You got to go out there [and be] aggressive. The deeper you get [in the count], the nastier he's going to get, and it's going to be tougher to hit."
As impressive as Burnett was -- and he retired the final 12 men he faced, allowing only two Nationals to reach scoring position all night -- there is a growing sense that the Nationals' offensive funk, one which has lasted more than a week, might be settling in like the driving rain over the District. Coming north hasn't stopped it. Manager Frank Robinson acknowledged that Burnett was at his best Tuesday. But in a familiar refrain, he criticized the approach -- or lack thereof -- of his hitters.
"I don't know what the plan of attack was," Robinson said. "I don't know if we have one."
The good work of a few weeks ago, when the Nationals ran off 17 wins in 24 games and fought within four games of .500, is long gone now, lost in the dust stirred up from 11 losses in their last 14. They are now losing games in which their starters pitch well, and Ortiz was solid, allowing just three runs despite the fact that the Nationals committed three errors behind him, despite the fact that his mind was partly on his wife, Elizabeth, who is back in New York dealing with an undetermined illness.
"You have to focus on the game," Ortiz said.
That is what Robinson wants, and the time to get it back is dwindling. The midway point of the season is Friday. Burnett or no Burnett, the manager wants different results -- and soon.
"We'll come out of it," Robinson said. "But when? And what type of shape will our season be in when we do come out of it? That's the key.
"We can't afford much more of this and still be able to salvage a season. It's a critical stage every time we go out there to play a game, really. We've dug a pretty deep hole."
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have remained within reach of Boston and the New York Yankees in the American League East -- all without Burnett's contributions. If Burnett can continue this arc -- two runs allowed in 15 innings since returning -- Toronto may not have to trade for a front-line pitcher to make a move in the race.
The only race for the Nationals is the one to save their season. When Nick Johnson grounded out to end the game, and Burnett celebrated with his teammates, that task grew even more difficult.
"I just don't like the way we're playing right now," Vidro said. "It's not just hitting. It's everything. We're only halfway. We got three months to go. But if we keep playing the way we're playing, it's going to be tough."