Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burnett's rare ninth-inning moment

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Sean Burnett is congratulated by Ivan Rodriguez after notching a rare save.
PHOENIX -- Sean Burnett is the ultimate anomaly: a left-handed reliever who struggles to get left-handed hitters out but dominates right-handed hitters. And yet, with tonight's game on the line late and three tough lefties due up in a span of four batters, who did Jim Riggleman hand the ball to? Why, Burnett, of course.

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."


Anonymous said...

I really thought we were headed for an 1:45 game last night.

Doc said...

Great recap Mark. Just wondering what is it about Lefty Burnett's ball action that is so good with righties, but ineffective against the lefties.

Deacon Drake said...

I think it is more bad luck than anything... lefties are usually under .200 against him, but this season are up around .300... the K rate is over 10 per 9, but the .412 BABIP against lefties is killing him.

He has been using the changeup a little more than usual, but that is the only significant difference.

SonnyG10 said...

I am currently on a camping vacation in upper state New York and missed a lot of Nats action. (I'm now at a campground with free WI-FI) I really appreciate this web site for catching up on the Nats news. You do a great job of reporting, Mr. Zukerman!

Ernie said...


I came to the same realization about a month ago and made a contribution to the site. If you haven't already, you might consider doing the same thing. Mark does a great job with his reporting and with maintaining this site and I think we all want to see it continue!

Stranded_in_Philly said...

"He's been very effective against righties. But we've got to see some left-handed hitters making out against him."

Am I really the only one that chuckled just a little bit at this quote?

Anonymous said...

hey, Jim got it right and made the change when he needed to; and he left his guy out there when he should have. Good managing.

Section 222 said...

I'm very glad that Burnett's performance exposed my cranky arm-chair managing rants for what they are -- cranky arm-chair managing rants. Burnett has turned into a pretty darned good reliever. If Clippard can get his act together, this closer by committee stuff could work. You bring in Clippard, Burnett or Storen in the 8th and if they are pitching well, ride them through the 9th. Kennedy made a nice scoop on Zimmerman's bad throw for the last out too, so the defensive switch was a good move this time as well.

Anonymous said...

Section 222 triggered this thought: Does Zimmerman seem wilder this year with his throws to first? I remember that spell of errors he had last year, and he's been throwing sidearm to control that, but this year I find myself holding my breath a lot when it comes time for him to toss the ball to Dunn. He still seems like a vacuum over there at 3rd, but the throws seem consistently off-target. Is our gold-glover slipping? Am I imagining this?

Anonymous said...

Zimmerman's got the gold glove, silver bat, and bronze arm. Sounds like a superstar to me.

I'm starting to think Dunn is going to be the first Nat hat in the Hall of Fame.

Also, our prospect/minors rankings is about to receive massive improvement in Maya, Ramos, Harper, Cole, to replace Strasburg, Storen, Desmond.

I'm happy we kept Dunn with so many games left against the NL East. We match up well and these games will mean a lot to me. I'd love to see Strasburg, Zimmermann, Maya, Detwiler, Olsen, etc. show strong. Lot of good baseball left.


NatinBeantown said...

I assume you're talking about the first guy wearing the curly W when admitted. Cuz Pudge will get 3000 in 2012, hang 'em up, and book a B'n'B in Cooperstown for summer 2017.

Anonymous said...

Section 222 I am right there with you. I wanted to shout at my television when Riggleman brought in Burnett (given his problems with lefties) and it got worse when he went to 3-2 on the first batter. But Burnett did a fine job and with this boost to his confidence will likely be even better in the future.

Let me echo SonnyG10 and Ernie. This is a blog that has given me so much pleasure this season. If regulars out there haven't contributed, they should. Mark doesn't shake the tambourine as many others might do in his place. I contributed back in spring training but I'm ready to add a bonus for such a fantastic job.

Ernie said...

Dunn played in Cincy from 2001-2008. Last year was his first with the Nats. To be inducted as a Nat he would have to play here until at least 2016. Conventional wisdom is that no one wants to sign him for even 4 years, let alone 6. (This is all leaving aside the issue of whether he's HOF material, which, as much as I love the guy, he ain't.)

NatinBeantown said...

Is there a rule for team duration? I thought the players chose (but I remember all the hubub when Wade Boggs was shopping his induction around to his former teams)

HHover said...

There's no time limit for determining which logo a player wears--it's based on the HOF's judgment about where the player made his "greatest impact." (Players used to get to choose, but this was changed after the Boggs controversy).

Were Dunn to a) prove to be of HOF caliber, which I don't think he (tho I like him too) and b) resign with the Nats, and c) lead the Nats into the playoffs, his 5-6 yrs here would certainly outweigh what he did in Cincy.

But that's a hypothetical that obviously gets way far ahead of where either Dunn or the Nats are right now.

Doc said...

The HOF players' contribution on 'team played for' seems to be a function of negotiation. Andre Dawson wanted to go in as a Cub, but from the article that I read, he was persuaded to go in as an Expo.

Anonymous said...

This is why I give Riggs the benefit of the doubt in the way he uses a pitching staff. He refused to give up on Burnett early in the year when he was struggling -- I would have gotten rid of him by May. But Riggs stuck with him, built up his confidence and now Burnett is for the most part an effective reliever, and clearly someone who is getting better. Well done, Riggs!

That said, his habit of removing Dunn and Willingham from a close game for defense drives me insane. Please somebody, make him stop the double switches!

court said...

It's my understanding that the Hall picks, not the player. Duration of tenure is a consideration, but not the end all be all. Case in point, Andre Dawson - he wanted to go in as a Cub, but the Hall put an Expo hat on him anyway. If Dunn gets to 600 HR's, then he's in, I think, considering that he did it "clean". However, even if he re-signs for another 3 years (if he's going to get a 4 year deal, he'd have it already), I don't think he'd be here any longer than that. Whatever contract he signs will be his last in the NL, whether it be for 2, 3 or 4 years. He's off to DH once he gets into his mid 30's. So considering the amount of time he spent in Cincy, I'd say he goes in as a Red... unless he wins a World Series here in DC. Then 5 years might be enough to get a Curly W into the Hall.

court said...

Looks like HHover beat me to most of my points.

Sec3MyInfamy said...

He left Burnett in, clearly the right move there based on results, but on TV you could see it was just killing him not be double-switching SOMEBODY there.

Adam Dunn, HOF? The MLB HOF? Srsly? Don't think so. The guy does one thing, pretty well but it's only one thing. I don't see him getting near 600, personally, but maybe if he gets that, there's a few votes for him to stay on the ballot a while.

And please do ante up, readers and posters, if you haven't already.

greg said...

technically, he does two things really well... power *and* getting on base. well, three if you count striking out, but that's really not the same thing... ;)

but i get your drift...

NatsJack in Florida said...

Some of us have been here as financial contributors from his first request to attend Spring Training and then added to our contributions to receive full season coverage.

Shame on those that enjoy this site with out contributing.

Section 222 said...

I should probably check the boxscores before saying this, but the Nats have been lousy in extra inning games this year (1-7, I think), and I wonder in how many of those games our big bats (Dunn, Willingham, even Morse) have been pulled late in the game for the likes of Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell, Alberto Gonzales. That's what Riggs did last night, and although it worked out this time because Burnett stayed in and pitched well, sometimes it just ends up sacrificing our best hitters for no real reason. I honestly don't think the defensive upgrade is that great to warrant taking Dunn and/or Willingham out of the lineup. If the slim lead is lost, we need them to bat in later innings.

That said, I do like allowing a reliever who is on his game to stay in for a second inning. It keeps the other guys in the pen fresher and gives us a chance to win more games. If we are still leading, I wouldn't mind letting such a pitcher take a turn at the plate rather than give up the chance to mount a comeback by taking out Dunn and/or Willingham.

Hats off to Burnett for last night's performance. Let's hope Clippard or Slaten can do the same tonight if needed.

Anonymous said...

"Shame on those that enjoy this site with out contributing."

How about those of us who come here joylessly without contributing?

NatsJack in Florida said...

Same goes for you....it's called masochism.

Brian R. said...

"But we've got to see some left-handed hitters making out against him." - Riggleman

Smoochy smoochy!

(aka, you're not the only one, Mike)

FOTB said...

I paid for a Washington Times subscription the past few years, just to read the Zuck's articles. I am overjoyed to stop supporting that rag and instead give my money to him. He is the best deal in town, or beyond, when it comes to baseball writing and analysis.
If we want him to stay, we have to pay.
If we take him for free, he'll be forced to flee.

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