A.J. Burnett is dealing with it, and as a result he’s dealing it.
The right-hander tossed another gem in a 7-2 Phillies victory over the Washington Nationals on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay), continuing a stretch that is both surprising and impressive.
With six innings of one-run, three-hit ball against the Nats, Burnett has put together a four-game stretch in which he’s allowed just three runs with 25 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. He has posted an 0.98 ERA over that span and held opponents to a .179 batting average.
Now here’s the rub …
Burnett has done all this since being diagnosed with an inguinal hernia that will require surgery. With no date set, thought it will likely be after the season, Burnett has been performing his own bit of surgery against the opposition.
He took a no-hitter into the fourth inning, whiffed seven over six innings and walked two. Had it not been for Adam LaRoche’s pop-up homer that snaked around the left-field foul pole, Burnett would have had his second straight scoreless outing and his third in his last four starts.
“He was outstanding,” manager Ryne Sandberg said.
Most impressive to Sandberg was Burnett’s ability to get out of a jam in the second. Ryan Howard clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning to get the Phillies going, but Burnett backed himself into a corner by walking LaRoche and Ian Desmond to open the second.
Considering Burnett is pitching with that hernia, getting pushed into a stressful situation probably wasn’t the ideal situation. But Burnett went to the stretch and settled down. From there, he needed 13 pitches to strike out the next three hitters and put to rest the Nats’ threat.
After the back-to-back walks, Burnett retired the next seven he faced and allowed four baserunners the rest of the way. He got into some trouble in the fourth after LaRoche hit a one-out double and Desmond followed with an infield single, but again, Burnett came back with another strikeout and a pop up.
“That’s vintage A.J. right there — walk a couple and get out of it,” Burnett said. “I was able to make pitches when I needed to. I was a little more comfortable out of the stretch than the wind up, luckily I was able to find my delivery and stay out of the stretch here and there.”
Sandberg and Howard surmised that Burnett might actually like pitching out of trouble. He’s been doing it for so long and once pitched a no-hitter that included eight walks. Amazingly, none of those runners scored.
“He’s the consummate battler,” Sandberg said. “He gets after it.”
Battler is the operative word. Washington came into the game ranked third in the National League in runs and batting average, only to be shut down by a 37-year old man with a hernia.
A guy can’t just ignore a hernia, can he?
“I think about it because it’s there,” Burnett said. “I was telling someone the other day that during our off-day, it bugged me all day, and then the next two days it’s gone. It comes and goes, and it’s something I have to deal with.”
Yeah, he’s a battler.
“That’s just A.J. being A.J.,” said Howard, who hit his sixth homer of the season. “He’s a great competitor. We knew that after facing him all of those years.”
Still, great competitor or not, getting diagnosed with a hernia and then ripping off this kind of stretch of success is nothing to just shrug off. Burnett has been impressive and it’s because he has command of his fastballs and curves.
Once known as the quintessential hard-throwing right-hander, Burnett is downright crafty these days.
“I’m older now so I’ve had to pitch,” Burnett said. “I’ve had the good hook during my career and I’ve been able to change the angle on it whether it comes straight down or swoops away from right-handers. It’s big. A couple of years ago I started throwing that two-seamer that goes into lefties and away from righties and it’s been a big pitch for me.”
Burnett has made a lot of big pitches throughout his career in the big leagues. With seven more whiffs, Burnett blew past Hall of Famer Jim Palmer for 52nd all-time in strikeouts. He’s just 30 behind Tommy John for 51st place and could climb near Robin Roberts in 44th.
Even with a couple of World Series rings and four trips to the playoffs, Burnett is impressed by his strikeouts.
“I always said I’m not here for my numbers, but I kind of lie when it comes to that one thing,” Burnett said. “Wins and losses, you can’t control that, you can’t control your ERA because you have to go out there and throw one pitch at a time, but I always took pride in my strikeouts. [Passing Jim Palmer] sounds pretty cool.”
The Phils (14-14) and Nats (17-13) finish the three-game series on Sunday when Roberto Hernandez (1-1, 5.74) will take former Phillies farmhand Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 3.25).