HOUSTON, July 11 -- Last year, Sean Burnett worried about his left arm. Reconstructive elbow surgery, related shoulder surgery and then the arduous recovery had kept him out of the big leagues in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but 2008 presented its own challenge.
His sinker felt like a flatter, sadder version of what he wanted. He had no feel for his delivery. He appeared in 58 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and cobbled together a 4.77 ERA. "But I came to the park every day wondering, 'Is this the day my arm is gonna break down?' " Burnett said on Saturday.
Burnett still remembers flying home after Pittsburgh's final game last year, feeling a sense of relief. Season over, no injuries.
But another leap forward? He wasn't so certain.
Turns out Burnett, 26, is still pushing through new barriers -- and breaking them -- even some five years after his elbow surgery. This year, for the first time since the procedure, Burnett feels back to his old self. That breakthrough has become fortuitous for the Washington Nationals, who acquired the left-hander in a four-player trade on June 30. Used now in an all-purpose role, not merely as a left-handed specialist, Burnett has become Washington's most reliable reliever of late. With the Nationals, he has pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits and one earned run.