On Sunday afternoons, the members of the Nationals' bullpen go through a little ritual, something Miguel Batista brought with him from his days in Toronto. One reliever shines the shoes of all the other relievers in the group, a little act of service for the members of the Nationals' "outcast family," as a few of the relievers call it.
Bullpens in baseball take on a culture of their own, with so many innings to kill and so much unappreciated work to do. It's how jokes like these gets started and how Sean Burnett comes to have a bronzed statuette of a shoe in his locker.
When Burnett shined his teammates' shoes, the Nationals realized, they won more often than not. In fact, they had their best record when Burnett was the one doing the shoe-shining. So it's become the left-hander's job to bring out the rags and the polish most weeks.
Though the role seems tedious, it fits Burnett well. He came to the Nationals as more than a throw-in, but less than the focal point of a deal that brought outfielder Nyjer Morgan and him to Washington from Pittsburgh last year. He was effective in 33 appearances for the team last year, posting a 3.20 ERA, but has never been thought of as anything special. Even in recent weeks, after Matt Capps was traded to Minnesota, Burnett has admitted his low-90s fastball and his pitch-to-contact stuff doesn't make him an ideal choice to succeed Capps in closing games.
"I pitch to contact. Most closers won't do that," Burnett said again on Sunday. "That's the reason I said that. If you're a scout, and you look at my stuff, you're probably not going to say it's closer stuff. ... I think the bullpen's deeper if you've got Drew (Storen) in the ninth and other guys to set him up and get to the ninth."
So Burnett continues to do his work in lower-profile situations, occasionally coming in for a save but mostly living in the seventh and eighth innings. Those spots, though, help to obscure what's becoming more and more evident as the season draws to a close: Burnett has been the Nationals' best reliever this season.
He has a 2.20 ERA this year, and a Fielding Independent Pitching (which only measures events that don't involve fielders, like homers, walks and strikeouts) mark of 2.80. That's the best on the team and 19th-best in the National League. And on Sunday, while Storen saved the game with possibly his best ninth inning of the year, it was Burnett that made it possible.
The left-hander struck out three batters in two innings, holding the Braves at two runs as the Nationals took the lead for good on Ian Desmond's single. Burnett, who had an 0-7 record heading into Sunday, got the win all of his teammates wanted to see him have.
"For him to have such a great year and not have a win, we were talking about that in the bullpen," Storen said. "We didn't want to jinx him, but we were like, 'He needs to get one,' so I was glad to help out with that."
It's easy to pigeonhole Burnett as a lefty specialist, but it's not what he does best. Lefties are hitting nearly 100 points better against him this year than righties; he's held right-handers to a .195 average and is getting even tougher on them now that he's throwing the slider that catcher Ivan Rodriguez started calling a few weeks ago.
"I don't have all the confidence in the world in it yet, but if I can get it over the plate and bounce it on top of the plate with two strikes, I've been getting some swings and misses," Burnett said. "We've got a Hall of Fame catcher that calls it, and you figure it must be pretty good if he's willing to call it in the big situations."
Burnett has become a complete reliever, capable of working multiple innings or pitching in different situations. He's averaging 9.05 strikeouts per nine innings this year, by far the best mark of his career, and riding the drastic improvement with his slider, he's getting more ground balls than he ever has.
Consider Burnett spent the last month of 2009 only pitching to a batter or two at a time because of a thumb injury he sustained when a liner hit him in the hand, and how he slipped down the Nationals' pecking order early this season into some sixth-inning work. His turnaround since then has been nothing short of remarkable; he's allowed 11 earned runs in 49 innings since the Nationals designated Brian Bruney for assignment in May and moved Burnett up in a remade bullpen.
"He's been unbelievable," manager Jim Riggleman said.
Even if you'll never hear much about him.
"I've been throwing the ball really well," Burnett said. "You've got confidence and you attack hitters. If you can get ahead of hitters, you put them in a defensive stance, I guess, and I've been able to take (advantage) of that."