VIERA, Fla. - If ever there was a concrete example that Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is planning a closer-by-committee arrangement to start the season, it came this morning in his meeting with reporters.
That's when Riggleman first mentioned using left-hander Sean Burnett as a seventh-inning set-up guy, seconds before invoking Burnett's name as someone who might be used in the ninth inning.
Burnett can't be used in both spots in the same game; the laws of physics prevent it. So, until someone - preferably right-hander Drew Storen, who is being groomed as a future franchise cornerstone as closer - seizes that role, Riggleman will play matchups and ride the hot hand, if not his gut instincts.
"You know you're going to need Burnett in the seventh, so you can't really just nail him down to the ninth," Riggleman said. "It's just a matter of maneuvering it as best you can to get the outs in the eighth and ninth if you're winning the ballgame."
Burnett isn't much of a power pitcher, so he's rarely been mentioned as a possible option late in games before this spring. Three of his four career saves came in 2010, and Burnett is excited about the possibility of expanding his role, though he realizes he may be more valuable as a setup guy.
"The best relief position is closer; it's the top of the food chain there," he said. "You'd like the opportunity and it's pretty cool to have your name in the mix. It's something I never though (about) - being able to get that job. We've got a lot of power arms, strikeout guys with high-90s fastballs. But I feel I'm capable of getting three outs in the ninth inning if I'm asked and that's what I'd like to do. If my name gets called in the ninth, I'll pitch the ninth. But I'm going to be ready when the phone rings."
Riggleman is more focused on getting the requisite outs when protecting a lead, not who's getting them. He's not even muttering the C-word, though reporters keep asking him about it.
"I don't even want to use the word," Riggleman said. "We're just going to try to get the outs in the ninth inning. There's no one person. You guys watch the games. You see spurts of excellence, guys blowing some people away. And then you see some wildness."
Of the relievers being considered for the role, only Burnett has really asserted himself, tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings over six outings. Right-hander Tyler Clippard is sporting a 14.40 ERA in five appearances and Storen has struggled, with opposing batters hitting .385 against him, Visa problems delayed right-hander Henry Rodriguez's arrival in camp; both he and righty Todd Coffey have ERAs of 7.71, though Rodriguez's 100 mph fastball makes him an intriguing option.
"To a certain extent, you'd like to have an idea of maybe what the roles would be," Burnett said. "But at the same time, you have an idea of what innings you might be throwing in and the key is going out there and pitching when the phone rings. It seems like we're going to go by committee right now, so a guy who throws the ball better may get more chances."