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Sean Burnett, Drew Storen highlight another good day for the Nationals bullpen

Sean Burnett, perhaps the most underrated player on the Nationals, entered Wednesday's game with one out and Eric Hinske on third base, the two best hitters on the Braves coming up. The results helped the Nationals secure a 4-2 victory and showed how Burnett has become, in Drew Storen's words, "the staple for our bullpen."

The first hitter Burnett faced was Jason Heyward, a fearsome left-handed batter. Burnett made it his goal this offseason to improve against right-handed batters, to ensure the stigma of "lefty specialist" never attached itself to him. It had worked, but somewhere along the way he started struggled with lefties. Entering Wednesday, lefties were hitting .287 against him, righties only .188.

With Heyward, Burnett's main goal, he said, was to "keep the ball in the ballpark." He was only half-joking. The Nationals led by two, and Manager Jim Riggleman had emphasized the importance of keeping the lead, even if it meant Hinske scoring.

Burnett threw an inside sinker and turned Heyward's bat into splinters. The result was a soft liner to second baseman Danny Espinosa.

"Every left-handed hitter that I get out right now means a lot," Burnett said. "It was big part of the game. I was fortunate enough to get a pitch in on him and jam him and get that out."

Up next was Martin Prado. Burnett struck out Martin Prado on a 79-mph slider that darted toward Prado's shins and, to him, must have turned invisible by the time he swung. The inning ended with Hinske stranded at third.

Burnett's slider, when he is able to bury it inside and low, has become a weapon for him against right-handers. He had never used the pitch in such a way until Ivan Rodriguez started calling it for him at the beginning of August.

"Slowly, for the past month and a half, it's starting to be more successful against righties," Burnett said. "I had never really thrown it to righties. It's a good pitch if I can locate it."

Burnett breezed through the eighth while allowing a single and striking out more hitter. When he left, his ERA for the season had dropped to 2.45 for the year. Burnett has impressed all season, really, but he's been dominant lately. Since August began, Burnett has allowed three earned runs in 18 1/3 innings, striking out 21 and yielding four unintentional walks.

"He's not getting nearly the credit that he should," Storen said. "A lot of times, it's kind of boring watching him pitch. He just does well every time. He goes in there and throws good pitches. It's not flashy. He does his job. That's something that's great about him. He's kind of not well known. And he should be for what he's doing for us this year."

He has earned Riggleman's trust. Burnett has recorded more than three outs in seven of his 18 appearances during that span, which the role he wants. Burnett was a first-round pick in 2000 and a starter. He only recently warmed to the idea of becoming a reliever. He does not want to completely give up his identity as a pitcher who can endure.

"When you have that lefty specialist tag who was once a starter, it's kind of awkward to have that title," Burnett said. "I wanted to go out this year, that was a big thing, to get my changeup back so I can face right-handers more often."

On Wednesday, Burnett turned the ball over to Storen, who had not had a save chance since Aug. 29. He also hadn't had a clean outing, with no base runners, since Aug. 25, which frustrated him. He had talked to pitching coach Steve McCatty about it and decided he was being too perfect. The message: "Throw good pitches instead of trying to throw the best pitch ever."

It worked. He got two ground balls and struck out Brian McCann to end the game. He needed just nine pitches.

"It was refreshing," Storen said. "I took a new approach didn't try to strike everybody out."

With their performances, Storen and Burnett underscored the bullpen's year-long excellence. They have a 3.41 ERA despite pitching more innings than any team aside from the Pirates. Bullpens are typically volatile from season to season, but the Nationals have a potential core in place. Storen, Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Collin Balester are all 27 or younger.

"It's awesome," John Lannan said. "You know if you go six, seven, you've got a good shot of winning the ballgame."

By Adam Kilgore  |  September 15, 2010; 6:20 PM ET
 
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Next: Are the Nationals playing the spoiler, or just playing?

Comments

"I took a new approach [and] didn't try to strike everybody out."

That's more democratic. And less fascist.

Posted by: Ted_Striker | September 15, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

This good harmony the Natinals are currently experiencing will only last until the Phillies just absolutely crush the spirit of the Natinals.

Right Natinal fans?

Posted by: Poopy_McPoop | September 15, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Just because you can quote Bull Durham doesn't mean anything.

Of course most Natinal fans don't know much anyway, that's why the root for the Montreal Expos, I mean Washington (3rd MLB Team in 1/2 decade) Natinals.

Posted by: Poopy_McPoop | September 15, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

They have been the one shining light in an otherwise dismal season if we had some starters(san's Livo&"The Kid") who know's but this is the one strong point of this team.

Posted by: dargregmag | September 15, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Yep, it is. Credit to the FO. They got that straightened out. It has gone from a weakness to a strength. Even turned a reliever into a catcher who will likey be filling that spot for a while. Lannan's comment on the pen was telling.

Posted by: fpcsteve | September 15, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Good luck to the Orioles in the playoffs. File that away and drag it out of mothballs ten years from now. Cheers!

Posted by: fpcsteve | September 15, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I see Lanan's take, but I wonder if Livan thinks that getting to the late innings is enough to give him a good shot at winning the game (how many quality starts for him have turned into anything but a W)?

Posted by: dfh21 | September 15, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

>Sean Burnett, perhaps the most underrated player on the Nationals

Only because he's the most overused. He puts out fires but he rarely decides anything.

Posted by: Brue | September 15, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I think he's right about Burnett. At this point, if it were the ninth inning and we were up by one, I'd want Burnett pitching. I would like to say that it'd be Storen, but it isn't.

Posted by: DavidandDonald | September 15, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

So it's safe to say that the appeal of Nyjer's suspension will remain forever in limbo? Nyjer, the indispensable one, the pole star of our outfield. Others may be subjected to the dreaded double switch, sat down against lefties, but not he!

Or did I miss something?

Posted by: CapPeterson1 | September 15, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

When you think back to the 'pen the Nats had in early '09 (and much of '09, really), you have to appreciate the job Burnett, Clip, Peralta ans Storen have done. That's one part of the team that it's hard to fault.

Posted by: nats24 | September 16, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday was a good example of how the "save" stat is, at best, misnamed.

Saving a game and getting a "save" often are not the same thing.

Way to go Sean.

Posted by: KenNat | September 16, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

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