Sean Burnett entered professional baseball as a starting pitcher, a first-round talent built on precise control and weak contact. He asked Pittsburgh Pirates officials to become a reliever, following two surgeries, as a last resort. Nothing about his style or his mind-set suggested he could close games. He hoped he’d someday pitch the seventh inning, maybe the eighth, be the pitcher who sets up the closer. “John Grabow was that guy for Pittsburgh,” Burnett said. “I always wanted his job.”
Entering his third season with the Washington Nationals, his fourth as a reliever and the sixth since he missed an entire minor league season, Burnett has become perhaps the best, most reliable part of the Nationals’ bullpen. Burnett has yet to allow a run this spring, and last year he posted a 2.14 ERA in 63 innings.
This winter, he signed a two-year contract that validated him as one of baseball’s rising relief pitching stars. Burnett knew it would not have happened without a conversation that brought him to tears.
With opening day coming March 31, the Nationals have not decided on a set closer. They plan to share the role and wait until one emerges. They have a handful of choices, and one of them is Burnett.
“That’s probably the one position on the baseball field I thought I’d never play,” Burnett said. “I never thought I had that kind of stuff. Do I have the stuff or some of the arms that these guys have? No. But coming and getting three outs in the ninth inning — I think I’m capable of doing that.”
Burnett’s winding path to the back of the Nationals’ bullpen started when the Pirates chose him with the 19th pick of the 2000 draft.
He signed a big bonus, shot through the minors and debuted in the majors in 2004.
By the end of that year, he started feeling pain in his left elbow. Burnett missed part of 2004 and all of 2005 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and shoulder surgery. On his back he had these words tattooed: “Against All Odds.”
Burnett worked his way back in the minors, but the injuries had sapped his ability to recover between starts. He pitched well when he felt sharp. Most starts, he did not feel sharp.
By spring 2008, Burnett realized he had little chance to make the Pirates rotation. He went to the front office wondering about switching to the bullpen.
His arm wouldn’t let him pitch effectively every fifth day, yet he requested a role that would force him to pitch every day. “How the hell am I going to be able to relieve?” he thought.
But he asked anyway. And the Pirates agreed.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the big leagues,” Burnett said. “If my only opportunity was to relieve to make the big league club, I was willing to try that. If the only job was backup second baseman, that’s what I would have tried to do.”
One month into 2008, the Pirates promoted him. By mid-June, after he was rocked in Baltimore, Burnett’s ERA was above 7.00. He had become tentative, more reliant on scouting and less focused on simply competing, the trait coaches believed made him successful.
Burnett received a phone call after that game in Baltimore, while he ate dinner with his wife and son at a California Pizza Kitchen.
The caller — Trent Jewett, his old minor league manager — told Burnett to find someplace he could be alone.
“I decided to give him a call because I knew he wasn’t achieving the things he could achieve as a player,” said Jewett, now a Nationals coach. “It’s not something that I can repeat it verbatim. But yeah, I remember it. Some of it was, I know he’s amongst the elite. And some of it was, I’m disappointed as somebody who believed in him and knew that he should be further along.”
Burnett described the call as “half father-talk, half letting me have it.” By the end, he was crying. It is difficult for most athletes, most anyone, to determine a precise turning point. For Burnett, he knows it happened that night in Baltimore, at a California Pizza Kitchen.
“I always go back to that conversation,” Burnett said. “I was lost at the time. I didn’t know what to do. It kind of got me back on track. Ever since that day he let me have it, my career has kind of gone up in the right direction.
“It woke me up. I realized, ‘You got to do something here.’ He didn’t have to make that phone call. He’s had a million guys go through into the big leagues. I didn’t call for him. He did it himself. He knew it was there. I just had to find it. That phone call did something.”
The rest of the season, Burnett pitched with an ERA under 4.00. In 2009, he received more time in the late innings in Pittsburgh, before the Nationals traded for him along with Nyjer Morgan and installed him into their rebuilt bullpen. In 2010, he had the best year of his career.
“Never again did I think about starting,” Burnett said. “Maybe this is what my arm was made for. Something about the workload made it easier for me.”
This winter, when Burnett agreed to a two-year contract that will pay him at least $3.95 million, he thought back to how he got there. He thought about Jeff Andrews, his minor league pitching coach, and about Jewett’s phone call. He thought about his family, how they had stood by him during rehab.
“It wasn’t just for me,” Burnett said. “I’ve always had guys pushing me, not letting me get too down on myself. I hope they took as much pride in it as I did.”
Burnett has allowed himself to at least consider closing — “the coolest relief spot there is,” he said. “I’d like to keep my name in the mix.”
“Could he go out and do it as a pure closer?” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty asked. “That’s something you have to develop. I’m not saying that he can’t. He’s got good, quality stuff. He may not be your prototypical guy. But given the opportunity to do it, I’m not saying that he can’t.
“He competes his butt off. He takes everything personal. He goes out there and he competes. He competes.”