Nationals Notebook

Pitcher Sean Burnett Has Given the Washington Nationals Some Needed Relief

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

HOUSTON, July 11 -- Last year, Sean Burnett worried about his left arm. Reconstructive elbow surgery, related shoulder surgery and then the arduous recovery had kept him out of the big leagues in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but 2008 presented its own challenge.

His sinker felt like a flatter, sadder version of what he wanted. He had no feel for his delivery. He appeared in 58 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and cobbled together a 4.77 ERA. "But I came to the park every day wondering, 'Is this the day my arm is gonna break down?' " Burnett said on Saturday.

Burnett still remembers flying home after Pittsburgh's final game last year, feeling a sense of relief. Season over, no injuries.

But another leap forward? He wasn't so certain.

Turns out Burnett, 26, is still pushing through new barriers -- and breaking them -- even some five years after his elbow surgery. This year, for the first time since the procedure, Burnett feels back to his old self. That breakthrough has become fortuitous for the Washington Nationals, who acquired the left-hander in a four-player trade on June 30. Used now in an all-purpose role, not merely as a left-handed specialist, Burnett has become Washington's most reliable reliever of late. With the Nationals, he has pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits and one earned run.

"It's funny," Burnett said. "I just said recently, I was talking to the guys in Pittsburgh, saying that I was finally starting to get a feel again for my sinker. I'm up to my old ways finally, and only then do I get traded. This is the strongest I've been and the healthiest I've felt and probably the most confident I've been since 2004."

"He's thrown the ball really good for us," Manager Manny Acta said. "As good as anticipated. We scouted him good, and the reports we got on him were right on target. He throws strikes. He's got good sink on his fastball. He's been effective against lefties and righties."

Burnett's time in Washington's bullpen has corresponded with a brutal backslide by several other of its members. Take away recently promoted Tyler Clippard, who has appeared in just two games this month, and here are the July ERAs of those in Washington's bullpen: 4.50, 5.40, 8.10, 12.00, 20.25.

Young Is Struggling

First baseman Dmitri Young, on a rehab assignment with Class AA Harrisburg, is 0 for 12 through five games. . . . Outfielder Elijah Dukes has been crushing Class AAA pitching since his demotion. In 23 at-bats (six games), he has a .348 batting average and a 1.032 OPS.

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