VIERA, Fla. - The most impressive arm in Wednesday’s live batting practice belonged to left-hander Sean Burnett. The reliever’s effort elicited praise from his teammates and Burnett got a measure of retribution against Michael Morse, who crushed a ball off the batter’s eye in center field when the two squared off in the first round of live batting practice during spring workouts Sunday.
This time around, Morse swung and made contact only to see his bat shatter into two pieces, one of which remained in his hand while the other flew helicopter-style toward the mound. Burnett ducked and the chuck of lumber landed behind him.
“For me, it shows movement,” Burnett said of the encounter with Morse. “Obviously, the pitchers are much more ahead of the hitters right now. My biggest thing (is that) I need movement. Last year at times, I think stuff flattened out. As long as I’ve been pitching, that’s the key to my sinker: getting a few off the end of that bat. And today I got a few off the end of the bat. There was a couple good change-ups off the end of the bat. That’s my key. Breaking a bat can break a bat. But just to see the contact and where they’re not getting the barrel to it, where they think it is and where the ball really ends up, is crucial for me.”
Of course, when they met earlier, pitchers were telling hitters what was coming, taking some of the mystery out of the exercise.
“The first day, he knew it was coming, so that was cheating,” Burnett said. “I’m trying to throw everything for a strike and they’re swinging. The other day, he ran into one. Today was ... not letting them know what was coming and seeing the contact.”
Burnett’s effort, along with an impressive session from lefty Gio Gonzalez, caught the eye of manager Davey Johnson and others. Right-handers Craig Stammen and Drew Storen also threw in the group Johnson was watching. Johnson said Gonzalez was joking that he was trying to make the team, and the manager winked that he might be able to find a spot for the hard-throwing southpaw.
“They all looked good. Even (Rick) Ankiel said, ‘Man, these guys are ready to start the season. I never got to that point until the first of April.’ But I think (it’s) the inner-team competition that’s in the air,” Johnson said.
Pitchers may be competing against one another, but Burnett is competing against himself. Last year, he had a run of short outings where he needed relatively few pitches to set down the opposition. As a result, he didn’t get the work in that he needed, no matter what his spring numbers said. Burnett didn’t allow an earned run in 9 1/3 innings over 10 appearances, but didn’t feel as comfortable as he wanted entering the season.
“Spring training numbers are useless, to tell you the truth,” he said. “My best years are when my numbers were the worst. Innings were so quick last year. I threw sinkers, got a couple quick ground balls and I was out of it. I didn’t really get to work on pitches. Kind of my fault, maybe I didn’t use spring training properly. This year, I’m going to throw more breaking balls for strikes and try to get my work in. If it’s giving up runs or throwing some extra pitches, not every inning has to be six pitches. Hopefully, I can work on that and get the breaking ball going.”
Burnett struggled in the first half last year, posting a 5.40 ERA, then settled into a rhythm in the second half, when he had a 1.80 ERA in 28 appearances and held opposing batters to a .228 average. He tried to fine-tune his mechanics during the offseason, using his second-half performance as a starting point.
“I feel better. I don’t know if it’s any different than last year. I made a few adjustments this offseason, trying to change some things a little bit, and hopefully for the better. Just tinkering with stuff. Still every day, I’m playing with different grips, trying to spin stuff. Everything feels great. I felt great all year last year. Just trying to build off stuff and improve.”