The Nationals were looking good with a 4-2 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals late Thursday night. In the eighth inning, they called upon their set-up man, Tyler Clippard, to get three outs. But an Albert Pujols’ home run cut the lead to 4-3.
The Nats still had the lead into the ninth frame. As usual, closer Drew Storen was summoned to finish off another game, as he had done 16 times this season. But, Yadier Molina’s home run to lead off the inning changed that plan quickly.
So, how big was it for Sean Burnett and the Nationals when the left-hander essentially saved the game by pitching a scoreless 10th inning? It was big.
It had been a rough month for Burnett, dating back to a blown save against the Atlanta Braves, May 12. He started the season as one of the choices for closer, with three saves in the first week and a half.
Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said they had been using Clippard and Storen to end games and that has left Burnett out of the late-game rotation.
“We had gotten away from using Burnie as much as we’d like,” Riggleman said. “That is not easy on him because he needs to throw.”
Burnett had not been called upon since June 9 at San Diego, giving him plenty of time to think about what he needed to do. During that time, he came to a realization.
“I wasn’t getting beat by my best pitch the last month and a half,” Burnett said. “So, (I decided) if I was going to get beat, I was going to start getting beat with my sinker. I decided to keep throwing that pitch and if you are going to get me, you are going to get me, but at least I can sleep at night it was my best pitch.”
Burnett said he went back to his fastball more often and kept it down in the zone. His biggest out Thursday night was inducing Pujols to fly out to Jayson Werth. After a walk to Matt Holliday, Burnett got Lance Berkman to look at a third strike and the Nationals had the opening they needed to win the game.
“Lately, it has been on my second or third pitches I have been getting beat,” Burnett said. “It is something I have been thinking about the last week or so when I wasn’t pitching. If I was going to get out ther,e I was going stay with my heater.”
Riggleman said he had confidence Burnett could get Pujols in the 10th inning.
“To be honest with you, with Pujols, it doesn’t matter who is throwing,” Riggleman said. “You got to make good pitches. He doesn’t care if it is a right-hander or a left-hander. I felt like as good as Burnie was throwing that was as good a chance as we had to keep him in the ballpark.”