NEW YORK — Sean Burnett admitted there were nights he questioned whether he would ever get back to the major leagues. For the first time in a long time, he was healthy for an entire season. For the first time in a long time, he was pitching a lot and pitching well, to a 2.28 ERA in 47 Class AAA games. But for whatever reason — and he certainly could not figure it out — neither the Dodgers nor the Twins nor the Braves found a spot for him in their major league bullpens. He never got the call.
“I’m not going to say I was willing to quit and throw in the towel, but there were times where you went back to the hotel room and wondered if it ever was going to happen,” Burnett said. “… I had a talk with the family, had good teammates that pushed me along and helped me grind through it. But the minor leagues isn’t easy, especially when you’re changing leagues all the time like I was. I never wanted to throw the towel in, but there were times when mentally I got to low places, and through family and friends kept pushing along. Hopefully they’ll enjoy it with me here.”
Some of his family will be here in New York. Others will find him and the Nationals when they return to D.C. next week. What they’ll see is Burnett’s in the majors for the first time since 2014, when he made three appearances with the Los Angeles Angels. He made 13 appearances the season before that. The last time Burnett had been healthy like this, with a major league chance like this, was 2012. He was a National then, too.
Burnett signed a minor league deal with the Nationals before spring training this year. He threw nine scoreless innings before being released in the last round of cuts before opening day.
“I shocked myself with the way I threw in spring training, to be honest with you,” Burnett said. “… I knew I had a lot to prove, and the biggest question mark was staying healthy and being able to do it over and over. I got to 30-40 outings on the year, and nothing was happening. That was the hard part, to keep going out there and pushing and grinding.”
But he did, and his arm — twice repaired by Tommy John surgery — held up.
“My arm’s felt great all year,” Burnett said. “You don’t throw as many back-to-back days in the minor leagues as you do up here. The arm feels great, and obviously it’s gotten a huge boost in the last 24 hours. Finally getting some adrenaline and being able to pitch in front of big crowds, it’ll be pretty cool.”
Exactly what opportunities Burnett will get with Washington remain to be seen. Nationals Manager Dusty Baker was adamant that these relievers called up in September are “reinforcements” and that he and the Nationals are “not trying guys out.” In other words, innings may be hard to come by.
The Nationals traded for Marc Rzepczynski not long after they reacquired Burnett from the Twins. They have Oliver Perez under contract for two seasons, though the veteran has struggled so much lately that Baker has stopped calling on him in the same high-pressure situations that he did earlier in the season. Sammy Solis is on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, but is eligible to return in time to pitch again this season, and perhaps in October. But Baker likes to have multiple lefties in the bullpen and tends to find spots for those available. Burnett will probably get a chance.
“I haven’t seen him throw. Spring training is one thing. That’s a long time ago,” Baker said. “He’s coming off an arm operation where probably this spring we had to baby him a little bit more and monitor his workload. All these guys, they’ll fit in wherever the situations call for or wherever we think we need them.”