The Washington Times - May 13, 2011, 12:42AM

ATLANTA — For Nationals reliever Sean Burnett, Thursday night’s appearance, a four-batter outing that began with two men on and proceeded to go walk, grand slam, (tie ballgame), ground out, ground out, was just the latest in a string that has left the left-hander frustrated.

Burnett was easily the team’s most dominant reliever coming out of spring training. Building off a solid 2010 season, Burnett was in the running as the team’s potential closer when the season began.

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But since allowing four earned runs in the ninth inning of what seemed to be a sure victory for the Nationals against the New York Mets 14 games ago, Burnett has not been the same pitcher. At times he’s shown flashes of the guy who finished the 2010 season with a 2.14 ERA and an 8.9 K/9 ratio, but more and more he’s had outings like Thursday’s.

Since that game against the Mets, Burnett has pitched in eight games (5 IP) and allowed six hits, eight earned runs and struck out just one. He has a 14.40 ERA in that span, though that’s a misleading figure for relievers because it can be skewed so easily by one bad outing. 

The most disturbing thing is how much better right-handers have been hitting him this year.

In 2010, Burnett was better against right-handers than he was against left-handers. He held right-handers to a .182 average while lefties hit at a .273 clip. This year, right-handers are hitting .387 off him with a .423 BABIP entering Thursday night while lefties are hitting .174 and had just a .182 BABIP before Thursday. Both batters he faced Thursday, Brooks Conrad (who walked) and Martin Prado (who hit a grand slam) were right-handed.

To see just how broad the difference is, take a look at the graph below, courtesy of Fangraphs.com. The red indicates right-handed batters, the blue left-handers. (Green is all batters.)

Sean Burnett AVG : Lefty-Righty Split Season Stats Graph

The difference is drastic. 

To be completely fair, Burnett was the victim of two questionable check-swing calls Thursday night, one to each batter, but either way seemed pretty baffled by his recent struggles.

“He said no swing so I guess that’s the way it works,” Burnett said. “I guess when it goes your way you get those and when you’re struggling it kind of goes against you. Just fighting through these few weeks and trying to come out on top.

“I don’t know what (the reason for the difference vs. RHB is). If I had the answer, I’d tell you. I’m throwing balls good and trying to make adjustments and just nothing’s going my way right now.”

Drew Storen has clearly taken over as the team’s closer, if still without official title, but Burnett’s ineffectiveness is an issue. The Nationals are already operating a bullpen with two guys who, if Thursday was any evidence, they refuse to use in close situations in Brian Broderick and Henry Rodriguez. They have to be able to rely on more than just Storen and Tyler Clippard night in and night out.

Right now, it’s just something he’ll have to work his way out of.

“We watch Burnie throw and he’s not getting the results that he’s not used to getting but the ball’s coming out of his hand good,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He’s throwing good and he’s making some good pitches. The last pitch he threw to Prado was the worst pitch he threw. He threw the ball fine.”