March 08, 2017
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The day after Memorial Day of the summer of 2014 was probably insignificant for many folks winding down from a holiday weekend and baseball players easing into the grind of a six-month schedule.
Sean Burnett won’t forget it, though, because it was the night he had been looking forward to for months. On that night in Seattle, his left elbow finally popped.
He was finally able to undergo Tommy John surgery for the second time in 10 years.
But why exactly would anyone hope for that end result? Aren’t the odds against a pitcher making a go of a big league career after a second Tommy John surgery?
Burnett, a 34-year-old veteran of nine major league seasons, is in Phillies camp on a minor league contract this spring, one of the many non-roster players hoping to land major league jobs when the regular season begins next month. Despite his uphill climb, Burnett has put himself firmly in the middle of what manager Pete Mackanin termed a “wide open” competition for lefthanded relievers in the Phillies bullpen.
There are four pitchers up for those jobs this spring: Joely Rodriguez, Adam Morgan (although he could still start at Triple-A, too), Burnett, and fellow non-roster player Cesar Ramos.
Burnett, in his fourth appearance of the spring, faced the minimum of six batters in a scoreless two-inning outing against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday afternoon in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“Burnett looked good for a couple of innings, mixed it up, changed speeds,” Mackanin said. “I liked what I saw from him.”
And to think it all started with the veteran pitcher angrily throwing baseballs into a hotel headboard in Arizona
After establishing himself as one of baseball’s most durable and effective left-handed relievers from 2009-2012 with the Washington Nationals, Burnett signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels prior to the 2013 season. But he pitched in just 13 games and was shut down with left elbow inflammation.
“I would go back to my room, set up some pillows on the headboard and would chuck balls at it hoping it would pop just so I could get it fixed,” Burnett explained. “The pain I was in was excruciating. I knew it wasn’t going to get any better."
His last game of the 2013 season came on May 26, 366 days before his elbow finally popped. In the year and one day in between, he battled through “excruciating pain.”
Burnett, a former Pirates first-round pick who had undergone Tommy John surgery for the first time in 2004, saw his old surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, during his lengthy stay on the DL during the 2013 season.
“They went in to fix the flexor tendon and Dr. Andrews said it was the ligament,” Burnett said on Wednesday afternoon. “It wasn’t torn, but it was completely stretched out and looked pretty beat up. It was 10-years old (from the first surgery). He wasn’t going fix it, hoping that the surgery for the flexor issue would do something, but the first day I threw after four months I knew it was still a problem.”
And so Burnett did the only thing he thought could get him healthy and back on the field. At his hotel room in Tempe, Arizona, where he had been rehabbing his arm, he tried to snap his left arm by “throwing the ball as hard as I could against the bed trying to get it to pop myself because I knew it was just a matter of time before it would pop.”
How do you try to break your own arm to save your career? Plushy hotel pillows.
“I would go back to my room, set up some pillows on the headboard and would chuck balls at it hoping it would pop just so I could get it fixed,” Burnett explained. “The pain I was in was excruciating. I knew it wasn’t going to get any better. If you throw a ball long enough you know what it’s going to take and how your body feels. I knew that was the problem. And hearing it from Dr. Andrews, then you really know. So it was just a matter of time. Kind of like a ticking time bomb.”
The time bomb went off the night after Memorial Day three years ago at Safeco Field. In just his third game since signing with the Angels, Burnett entered in the seventh with his team holding onto a 5-3 lead.
He got Michael Saunders to hit a harmless pop-up behind third base to record the only batter he faced. His arm finally gave in, something he had wished for months earlier in his Tempe hotel room.
“So it was a little weird to face him in live (batting practice) this year,” Burnett said with a laugh about Saunders, also in his first Spring Training with the Phillies. “I had a lot of bad memories. I had some choice words when he stepped in the batters’ box. We had a good time with it.”
Burnett believes he proved to everyone in baseball that he was healthy again in 2016. He pitched in 47 minor league games before returning to the major leagues with the Nationals last September, when he allowed just two runs in 10 appearances.
With the Phillies, he saw both an opportunity and familiarity. Mackanin was his first manager when he pitched as a teenager at Low-A Hickory in the Sally League as a top Pirates prospect. General manager Matt Klentak, who came over to the Phillies from the Angels organization, was an assistant GM with the Angels when they signed Burnett.
“So they knew what I was capable of doing,” Burnett said. “I just had to show them I was healthy. I think I did that quite a bit last year. I never had a setback, knock on wood. And I feel great this spring training. I can literally let the ball go now.”
And he’s no longer throwing it at hotel pillows, but at big league hitters, hoping it will open the door back to a regular job in a major league bullpen.