On a depth chart of pitchers the Nationals had reason to be worried about entering the season, Sean Burnett probably ranked dead-last. The left-hander was coming off a brilliant 2010, followed by a perfect spring training (zero earned runs allowed in 10 appearances).
Two months into the season, Burnett's struggles may not rank as the No. 1 concern on a Nationals roster full of concerns. But the reliever has been far from the sure thing that made him so valuable one year ago.
After losing Monday's game to the Phillies, Burnett is sporting a 5.59 ERA. He's allowing nearly one hit per inning pitched, his highest rate in three years. He's striking out only 4.7 batters per nine innings, nearly 50 percent fewer than he did in 2010. And right-handed batters are hitting .317 against him, a complete reversal of his fortunes last year.
All of this leaves Burnett baffled.
"I don't have the answer right now," he said after Monday's loss. "The thing is, I have good outings and I have bad outings, and there's just no consistency right now. You can't have that. You're letting good starts slip away, and it's unfortunate and unacceptable. I hold myself to a higher standard than that, and I'm the first one to take blame on this one."
Like fellow lefty Doug Slaten, Burnett has also struggled when summoned by manager Jim Riggleman to pitch his way out of a jam. After replacing Livan Hernandez with a man on in the seventh inning Monday, Burnett immediately walked Chase Utley, served up an RBI single to Ryan Howard and a sacrifice fly to Raul Ibanez.
He's now allowed nine of 17 inherited runners to score this season, a 53 percent rate that bears no resemblance to his career rate of 24 percent entering 2011.
Burnett said he's never before endured through these kind of prolonged struggles, at least "never when I'm healthy." And it doesn't appear to be one particular pitch that has been his undoing.
"They've hit everything," he said. "I've had success with everything, and I've gotten in trouble with everything too. It's just a matter of executing each pitch better, I guess, and getting the ball on the ground."
Riggleman noted Monday that Burnett still appeared to be throwing the ball well and suggested he's been a victim of bad luck more than anything.
If nothing else, the manager clearly appreciates the way Burnett is handling his struggles.
"He stood in front of you guys [on Monday] and said: 'I didn't get it done,' and I admire that," Riggleman said. "This guy impresses me so much. He's all about the team: 'I let the team down, and that's on me.' He took it. That kind of character is going to be rewarded somewhere. I'm just really proud of him, the way he's gone through this year with some struggles, but the way he keeps battling and doing everything he can for this ballclub."