Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Sean Burnett is congratulated by Ivan Rodriguez after notching a rare save.
The stats said it was a dicey move -- right-handers hit only .179 against Burnett but lefties hit .317 -- but the book said it made all the sense in the world.
"That's what Sean's got to do," Riggleman said. "He's been very effective against righties. But we've got to see some left-handed hitters making out against him."
Perhaps Burnett proved tonight he can do just that. By striking out both Kelly Johnson and Adam LaRoche, then getting Miguel Montero to ground out, the unheralded lefty reliever put himself in position to earn a rare save. And after recording the final five outs of a 3-1 Nationals victory, Burnett found himself in an unusual-but-happy position: Shaking hands with Ivan Rodriguez and teammates after closing out a ballgame.
"It's pretty neat to be the last guy on the mound to get that last out in a big-league baseball game," he said. "That's pretty cool."
Burnett had done it only once before in a save situation. His only other big-league save came May 25, 2009, when he was still pitching for the Pirates. He certainly didn't get any opportunities through this season's first four months, not with Matt Capps holding down the closer' job with aplomb.
But now that Capps is pitching the ninth inning in a pennant race in Minnesota, Riggleman is left to spread the save opportunities around his remaining late relievers. Drew Storen figures to get the lion's share eventually, but on a night like this, Burnett made the most sense.
Actually, for most of the night, it looked like Livan Hernandez would just take care of everything himself and become the first Nationals pitcher to toss two complete games over a span of three starts. When he struck out Gerardo Parra to lead off the eighth, Livo had retired 18 of 19 Diamondbacks batters and given his manager every reason to think he could go the distance.
But then pinch-hitter Tony Abreu singled up the middle and Chris Young drew a walk and Arizona had the go-ahead man at the plate in Johnson, whose 17 home runs are fourth among all major-league second basemen.
So Riggleman walked toward Angel Hernandez, informed the plate umpire he was double-switching and then reluctantly took the ball from Hernandez's hand.
"I just didn't want a good night ruined by one ball in the air," Riggleman said. "But that was a tough one. I hated taking him out there."
No problem, because Burnett entered and seized control of this game like few he ever had. He struck out Johnson on a 3-2 fastball, then caught a break when Justin Upton swung at a 3-0 pitch and grounded to short to end the eighth.
"He bailed me out a little bit," Burnett admitted.
If Capps was still sitting in the Nationals' bullpen, Riggleman wouldn't have hesitated turning things over to his closer for the ninth. But with this new arrangement, the manager is left to pick and chose his closer based on the given situation. In this case, with two more lefties due up in LaRoche and Montero, Burnett was the right choice to come back out for the ninth.
And he didn't disappoint, striking out LaRoche and getting Montero to ground out to short. Now, even with the dangerous Mark Reynolds at the plate, Burnett was allowed to stay in and go for the save.
Reynolds tapped a grounder to Ryan Zimmerman, who slung the ball to first and a Nationals club that has suddenly won five of its last seven gathered at the pitcher's mound to celebrate, with Burnett of all people right in the middle of it all.
"It's closer-by-committee right now, so we all know there's going to be different guys each night in the ninth," he said. "But [since] there were lefties coming up, I figured he might give me a shot. And as long as I kept them off base, maybe they'd let me face Reynolds, too. Fortunately, it worked out."