Burnett making serious case for inclusion in Nats bullpen

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals had no idea what to expect when they signed Sean Burnett to a minor league contract in November. As much as they hoped they'd get the guy who established himself as one of baseball's best left-handed relievers during his first stint with the organization from 2009-12, reality suggested it was a long shot.

Burnett, after all, had appeared in only 16 major league games since departing from Washington more than three years ago, none since May 27, 2014, when elbow pain forced the Angels to shut him down and ultimately forced him to have Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career.

Burnett Red Throwing wide.jpgAfter sitting out all of 2015, Burnett simply wanted one more shot. The Nationals obliged, figuring there was no risk bringing him to camp on a minor league deal.

Now, two weeks before they head north, the Nats find themselves seriously contemplating a spot in their opening day bullpen for the 33-year-old.

"Aw, man, it's great," manager Dusty Baker said earlier this month. "I'm telling you, he was one of the best in the business before he got hurt. ... He's quiet, goes about his business. Even though you don't hear him, you can't overlook the prospect of him possibly making the team."

Burnett made his fifth Grapefruit League appearance on Thursday, and just as he did in the previous four, he departed with a zero on the scoreboard. Truth be told, this was his worst outing to date. Why? He actually gave up a hit for the first time.

More importantly for Burnett, the twice-surgically repaired elbow is holding up well.

"My arm feels great," he said after Thursday's game. "I had one day off (between appearances) this time out, and my arm felt great. A little up in the zone and a little bit sloppy today. But health-wise, I feel fine."

Burnett's fastball has been clocked in the upper 80s, just a tick below where it sat prior to his injury. His command has been sharp, with one walk and one hit batter (the first one he faced) in his five innings of work.

Burnett hasn't been worried about any of that for some time. Though he didn't pitch professionally last year, he did throw regularly near his South Florida home, even on back-to-back days. That allowed him to report to camp this spring with a clear mind.

"I battle tested it quite a bit last year because I wasn't coming back unless I knew it wouldn't respond well," he said. "I gave it a bunch of tests last year and a bunch of (bullpen sessions) and long toss. I'm not really worried about how it's going to feel right now. It's just about executing pitches. That's the biggest thing."

The Nationals opened camp with two lefties already locked into their opening day bullpen: Felipe Rivero, who dazzled as a rookie; and veteran Oliver Perez, who got a two-year, $12 million contract.

Burnett seemed unlikely to find his way into the mix, but Baker said this week he's always wanted to carry a third left-hander in his bullpen. And given his performance to date, Burnett may just give the skipper reason to do it.

This is a new position for Burnett, who for some time has come to spring training knowing he was already assured of a big league job. Despite the difference this time around, he insists he's approaching matters the same way he always has.

"I don't care what my status was or what my contract said," he said. "I was always trying to be the guy putting up a zero and not be the guy just trying to get his work done. I can compete. That's probably what I do best. I can compete. If I don't get zeroes, I don't get zeroes. But it's more about throwing my pitches for strikes than impressing the people watching."

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