The Washington Times - June 23, 2011, 01:45AM

For Sean Burnett, it seemed to become ritual that on nights he pitched, he’d find himself standing at his locker after the game talking about what went wrong for him.

“I feel like I have to apologize to my teammates every outing because i’m just costing ballgames every time I get out there,” Burnett said on June 8 in San Francisco. His confidence, he admitted, was wavering. There was never anything specific he — or anyone else — could pinpoint to change, but absolutely nothing was going his way.

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Wednesday night, with a chance to reach the .500 mark hanging in the balance and a 2-1 game in the works, Burnett was called on with two outs in the seventh inning to face power-hitting Jack Cust and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. Henry Rodriguez, who’d relieved starter John Lannan one inning earlier, left Burnett with Dustin Ackley on first base. 

Cust reached, even though Burnett got the ground ball he wanted. Danny Espinosa couldn’t get a proper grip so Burnett was forced to face Ichiro Suzuki. Four straight sinkers later and Ichiro was walking back to the Mariners dugout shaking his head after flailing at Burnett’s pitch.

It was the fourth straight successful outing for Burnett, all of the coming on this homestand and another boost to the confidence that was hanging by a thread just a few weeks ago for one of the Nationals most effective relievers in 2010.

“It’s night and day to tell you the truth,” Burnett said. “I feel like I want the ball now and I want to go out there and be the guy that gets outs where I was kind of doubting myself a month ago, a few weeks ago. It didn’t seem like I could make the pitch I wanted to make and get the out I needed to get. Now I feel completely different, not to say that much is different, I’m just trying to go out there and execute and make pitches and hopefully it works in my favor.

“In the last couple weeks, I don’t know if things have clicked, I feel like I’m able to repeat my delivery and able to make pitches. I know I made a great pitch on Cust and I felt confident where a couple weeks ago if that would have happened it was kind of like, here we go again, I can’t make the pitch I need to make but I feel like I made a great pitch there and I just had to make another one just like that. That’s all I was trying to do was make that same pitch to Ichiro and hopefully get the same result. I was fortunate to get a swing and miss.

Burnett has made a conscious effort since the Nationals returned home to stop thinking so much on the mound. He realized he wasn’t getting beat one his best pitch and if he was going to keep getting beat, at least it would be on his best stuff.

“Talking to guys throughout the last couple of years, with Adam Kennedy quite a bit last year and Adam Dunn, we kind of talked about how to pitch left-handed hitters. I got away from that a little bit early in the year and I went back to it the last week or so and said, ‘You know, if I’m going to get beat, I’m going to get beat on my best pitch.’ Early in the year I was getting beat on my secondary pitches and it’s tough going to sleep at night knowing it wasn’t your best stuff.”

– Burnett was part of a bullpen that put up 3 1/3 scoreless innings Wednesday night, following Rodriguez and then watching from the dugout as Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen did their things in the eighth and ninth innings. 

The Nationals bullpen has had peaks and valleys this year but with Collin Balester, Ryan Mattheus and Todd Coffey offering up superb outings Tuesday night and the other four pitching in tonight, it’s tough to decide what exactly is the weak spot down there. 

Since the Nationals began this streak where they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, their bullpen has a 0.79 ERA.

“It’s huge. Before the ballgame, we talked about Henry Rodriguez and him taking on one of those (late) innings. And it’s big he got those outs for us. We love going to Clip and Storen, but some other guys are going to have to do it.

“Burnett was outstanding. Burnie faced a tough power hitter in Cust, got the groundball. That’s kind of how it’s been for Burnie. It’s seemed like anything bad could happen, happened. But he then faced a future Hall of Famer and got a huge out for us. It was big for Burnie tonight.”

– Danny Espinosa, who drove in a run and scored another Wednesday night has a pretty unbelievable split in his batting average. When there are runners in scoring position, Espinosa was a .374 hitter entering Wednesday night’s game and .330 with runners on. With the bases empty, he’s hit just .187.

Those first two numbers will rise again tomorrow after Espinosa drove in Ryan Zimmerman with the game’s first run Wednesday night. 

“I just try to really lock in,” Espinosa said. “I don’t try to take any breaths or anything, I just try to lock in and it’s time to hit. That’s the funnest time to hit, when guys are in scoring position. When you can get guys in, it pumps the team up, whether the score is up by a lot, down by a lot, it pumps the team up and it gets things rolling on the right note.

“I like pressure. With guys in scoring position I enjoy being up there. I have fun being up there. The approach doesn’t change, I don’t feel. With runners in scoring position that’s the time to really lock in and you’ve got a job to do.”

Espinosa was already well experienced with big stages when he was drafted by the Nationals, having played for Team USA and for Long Beach State. When asked to pinpoint a reason he may do so well in so-called clutch situations, Riggleman pointed to that experience.

“He’s just played a lot of baseball,” Riggleman said. “He’s been in big situations, going back to his college days at a great program. The situation isn’t too big for him.”

Those RISP numbers may grab the headlines for Espinosa as he continues to put together a fine rookie campaign, but one thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed is that his hustle to get to second base on a wild pitch Wednesday night forced Seattle catcher Miguel Olivo into a throwing error that then allowed him to reach third. Shortly thereafter, Hairston drove him in with the winning run.