The Washington Times - April 2, 2011, 10:11PM

Not once during his postgame press conference did Nationals manager Jim Riggleman utter the word “closer.”

But when Drew Storen was warming in the bullpen before the eighth inning this afternoon in a three-run game — despite the fact that he’d presumably face two left-handers in Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman with Sean Burnett still available — it wasn’t difficult to see which way Riggleman was leaning.

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“I could have gone either way,” Riggleman said of giving Burnett the opportunity for the save. “But here, early on, if the opportunity presents itself, I want to have Burnett available for the ninth — so that meant Storen was going to face left, right, left.”

That’s as definitive as Riggleman has been about deciding on a specific candidate to be this team’s closer. He was likely buoyed by the fact that Tyler Clippard, who got two outs and out of a jam in the sixth in addition to a scoreless seventh, Storen and Burnett lined up as well as they did to save the Nationals 6-3 win on Saturday.

Other than the fact that Burnett had the best spring training of any reliever on staff and Storen had arguably the worst, there isn’t any dramatic evidence for the Nationals to lean one way or the other when it comes to closing games. That being said, Burnett was one of the Nationals’ best relievers in 2010 and hasn’t missed a beat here in the early going.

But he’s also not your prototypical closer. Burnett, who was drafted out of high school as a starting pitcher by the Pirates and underwent Tommy John surgery in Sept. 2004, is a self-described “soft-tossing” lefty who isn’t exactly blowing it by guys in the ninth inning.

In nailing down his fifth career save this afternoon, though, Burnett sure played the part of a closer — admitting the adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual with the crowd on their feet with two outs in the ninth. Picking up a four-out save with a one-pitch groundout to end the eighth, Burnett then produced a 1-2-3 ninth and fielded his position well enough (with two impressive stabs) to make sure they were three quick outs.

“For a soft-tossing lefty, it’s pretty cool to pitch the ninth in a big league game,” Burnett said. “From all I’ve been through over the years with injuries and being a starter, it’s pretty cool to throw the ninth inning in a big league game and be that guy they called upon to do it. It’s a neat experience.

“I was like a little kid out there today. It was something I’ll always remember.”

The truth is it’s only one game and on Sunday, faced with a similar situation, Riggleman could opt to go with Storen in the ninth and play the matchups more than he did on Saturday afternoon. But I think it’s telling that Burnett was given the first crack at a save and reveals a lot about Riggleman’s faith in him.

The party line in the bullpen has been that whenever the phone rings they’ll be ready, and Burnett said again today that the title won’t make a difference in the way he goes about his business — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to him.

“I’m so competitive,” Burnett said. “If you hand me the ball in the fourth inning or the ninth, I’m going to try and get the outs either way.

“It’s more fun to pitch the ninth than any other inning but you’ve got to earn that right and you’ve got to be able to produce. Today was my first opportunity. I’ve got to keep turning in good outings and earn the trust of the manager and the front office people to assume the role of closer — especially when you’re a guy that maybe doesn’t have the overpowering arm. I pitch to contact… I’ve just got to see what happens over the long haul.”