VIERA, Fla. — There were times last season when Sean Burnett seemed to be searching endlessly for an answer. The left-hander would stand in front of his locker and simply shake his head. He couldn’t identify why his curveballs were hanging at the wrong times or why he allowed 44 percent of inherited runners to score.
His season improved. His ERA in the first half, 5.40, dropped dramatically to 1.70 in the second half of the season, partly due to a switch back to the first base side of the pitching rubber. Burnett, a former starter, moved to the third base side of the pitching rubber after Tommy John surgery. He made the switch back in a bullpen session, used it in a game, and felt better.
When he began throwing for the first time this offseason in November, he made another change: returning to pitching out of the windup.
Will it help?
“I guess we’re going to find out,” Burnett said. “Help? I don’t know if it’s going to help, but there’s no real point of throwing from the stretch if nobody’s on. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know if it was because I was coming in in situations where guys were on so much and I just had to get used to throwing out of the stretch more because I was a reliever or what.
“I just figured, this offseason, why not come back to the windup and the first pitch I threw out of the windup was perfect. From then on, I tried it.”
“Hopefully I’m athletic enough (that it’s not an issue),” he added. “I mean, I switched sides of the rubber and tried it that night in a game. Hopefully since I’ve had a couple of months to work on it, it should be fine. But it feels so much more natural that if I had to throw it in a game a month-and-a-half ago with it, I would have felt fine.”
Burnett is the only left-handed reliever in the Nationals’ bullpen this season who doesn’t project as a long reliever but he’s hopeful that he won’t be used exclusively as a lefty specialist.
“There’s a lot of talented guys down there… but I take a little more pride than just getting lefties out so I hope it’s not just that. At the same time, we’ve got some good right-handers too. If that’s what it is, that’s what it is.”
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Thursday he doesn’t have an inclination to use Burnett in that specialist role.
“I never lost confidence in Sean (last year),” Johnson said. “He pitched very well for me in basically that setup role. Actually, he performed as good if not better against the right-handed batters than he did the left-handed batters. He hung a few curveballs to some left-handers that went a long way, but by and large he was very good.”
– Nationals closer Drew Storen was getting an earful from pitching coach Steve McCatty during his bullpen session Thursday. That’s his penance, he said, for a little rookie excitement two years ago.
“He just keeps telling me to slow down,” Storen said. “I wrecked my reputation for spring training because I threw about 100 pitches in 10 minutes because I was so excited my first spring training ever. From then on he just assumes I’m going to do that every time out. (McCatty), I think, systematically tells every coach to come talk to me at some point so I don’t get back up and keep going.
“I’m the type where if I don’t like the previous pitch, I hop back up there to work through it real quick. I don’t like it staying in my head, so they try to slow me down quite a bit. That’s really the main topic of conversation, to slow down, and don’t overthrow.”
Storen’s “hip drive” which appeared extremely pronounced in his first bullpen session, was a little more standard on Thursday — going back closer to the delivery he said he used for much of 2011. But with Storen, there’s always a chance he’ll alter it again for the next time out as he continues to get comfortable. He was “messing” with his feet a bit on Thursday.
“He’s kind of a tinkerer,” Johnson said. “He’s always tinkering around – I guess that’s the Stanford in him, he’s always trying to have some edge. I’ll probably give him a little more time to tinker … he doesn’t have to prove anything to me. He’s not fighting for a spot on the roster; I’ve got a spot for him.
Like the rest of the Nationals’ pitchers, he also mixed in a few curveballs on Thursday.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Storen said. “Especially when it comes to bullpen. That’s why I seem unhappy with a couple pitches. Even if I’m off just a little bit, I get fired up.”