Sean Burnett had not been told when he might pitch Saturday afternoon, so he waited in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen for the phone to ring. He watched his teammates build their first victory of the season using stellar defense, a sustained spurt of offense and even a suicide squeeze bunt. The phone rang for Burnett only when the Nationals needed someone to close it.
“For a pitcher who was drafted as a soft-tossing lefty starter,” Burnett said, “it’s pretty cool to pitch the ninth in a big league game.”
The Nationals have not anointed a closer with their words, but their actions suggest they have settled on someone. Burnett recorded the final four outs of the Nationals’ 6-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, making their closer of the moment a lefty who overcame two surgeries and switched from starter to reliever three years ago.
Burnett’s pitching existence in the recent stages of his career has been an afterthought, a strike-thrower who could handle middle innings. He has morphed into something else: one of the best relievers in baseball, the man the Nationals will trust with the final, precious outs of a near victory.
“Early on, if the opportunity presents itself,” Manager Jim Riggleman said, “I want to have Burnett available for the ninth.”
Saturday, of course, Burnett could seal the game only because there was a lead to protect. Rick Ankiel smashed a two-run home run and later bunted home Ryan Zimmerman on a clinical suicide squeeze play, part of the offense that rebounded from an opening day shutout. Starter John Lannan allowed one run in five innings, his outing cut short by a 55-minute rain delay in the fourth. Tyler Clippard extricated the Nationals from a one-out, two-on jam while holding a two-run lead. Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos, making his first start of the season, both had three hits. For the second straight game, the Nats did not make an error.
“The last 18 innings of baseball have been very much different from the kind of baseball club we’ve been over the last two years,” Clippard said. “A lot cleaner. It’s good to get this win, because we played so well.”
Their most exciting moment came in the seventh. The Nationals led 4-2 after Clippard had cleaned house in the sixth, entering with two runners in scoring position and stranding them both by striking out Brooks Conrad with a 92-mph, belt-high fastball and inducing a deep flyout to left. As Clippard recorded five crucial outs, the Braves swung at 14 of the 26 pitches Clippard threw. They missed six times.
“That,” Werth said, “was the difference in the game.”
So the Nationals still clung to a two-run lead at the start of the seventh. Zimmerman led off with a triple, his first three-base hit since 2009. He remained there with one out, after left-handed reliever George Sherril intentionally walked Jerry Hairston in order to pitch to Ankiel, who in the third had crushed a two-run homer to right off Tommy Hanson.
Last year, Ankiel batted .164 against lefties. Now, though, the Nationals didn’t need him to hit.
Ankiel took Sherrill’s first two pitches, a ball and a strike, both sliders. Riggleman had let Ankiel see one strike. Then, he signaled to third base coach Bo Porter, who signaled to Zimmerman and Ankiel: the squeeze was on.
“Jim told us at the beginning of the year that we’re not going to wait around for things to happen,” Zimmerman said. “At a time like that, when you’re ahead two, the third run is a big deal.”
As Sherrill started his next delivery, Zimmerman bolted from third and Ankiel squared to bunt. Sherrill fired another slider. “Just because of the spin of it,” Ankiel said, “I think it’s easier” to bunt.
Ankiel tapped it softly back to the mound. Sherrill had no choice but to surrender the run, turn and throw to first. Zimmerman glided across the plate standing up. In the Nationals’ dugout, players stormed the front step and offered fist bumps to both Zimmerman and Ankiel.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Ankiel said. “It makes it all worth it.”
In one game, Ankiel had flashed disparate talents. The Nationals had not received a home run from their opening day center fielder, incredibly, since 2008. “He’s one of the purest athletes in the game,” Werth said. “He is, and he will be, a big part of this team.”
When Riggleman called on Burnett with two outs in the eighth, the Nationals led 5-3. Burnett had saved four games in his career, two of them at home. Once he retired the first three batters he faced, what remained of the 21,941 at Nationals Park stood and cheered in anticipation of the final out.
“For someone like me, not used to that,” Burnett said, “you’ve got to stay in the moment.”
Chipper Jones laced a line drive back at Burnett, who stabbed at the ball like a hockey goalie and gloved it, both the Nationals’ first win and his first save. On his way back to dugout, Jones smirked at him. Burnett couldn’t help but smile back.