CHICAGO - Relievers with late-inning roles don't have to be in the bullpen at the start of the game, with most waiting until the middle innings to stroll out.
Twins righthander Jared Burton has pitched himself into a late-inning role, but on most gamedays he is out in the pen with his fellow relievers for the first pitch.
His reason is a simple one. He has missed enough games in his career and doesn't want to miss out on anything else.
Burton, 31, was drafted by the Athletics in 2002 out of Western Carolina, then selected by the Reds in the Rule 5 draft in 2006. His time in Cincinnati was spoiled by trips to the disabled list every year from 2007 through 2011.
In 2010, a thyroid problem cost him five weeks, then an oblique strain cost him three more. Last year, shoulder surgery kept him out of action until August.
This season -- the sound you hear is Twins officials knocking on wood -- has been his healthiest ever.
Burton has been a vital member of the Twins bullpen, going 1-0 with a 2.29 ERA and three saves in 40 games. He has racked up 36 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings thanks to a pitching assortment that includes a split-fingered changeup that has been hard for opponents to handle.
He began the season as a setup man, but he has shared the closer role with Glen Perkins for the past month while Matt Capps recovers from a sore shoulder.
"For the bullpen, he's become a pretty big staple," lefthander Brian Duensing said. "Throwing-wise, he's been lights out."
By walking out to the bullpen before games with other relievers, Burton is making up for all those times he has been away from his bullpen mates through the years -- all the times he has been rehabbing an injury, staying back while teams go on road trips, wondering when he would pitch again.
"The last couple of years have been tough for me," Burton said. "I know my body has felt and is still feeling as good as it ever has.
"And it's a big-league ballgame. Sitting in the bullpen getting to watch a big-league ballgame is pretty cool. That's one of my things I've never tried to take it for granted. Every game has its own special or cool things that happen, and I just want to be out there to see it."
The Twins, desperate to upgrade the bullpen after the 2011 season, took a chance on Burton because of his experience as setup man. Wayne Krivsky, the former Reds general manager who is currently a special assistant to Twins GM Terry Ryan, spoke highly of him.
"We liked his track record when he was healthy," Ryan said. "He's got a good arm, we all knew that. We had some help with Wayne knowing him when he was with Cincinnati.
"When he was out there [on the free-agent market] he had the interest because we certainly had the opportunity."
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have been careful not to overwork Burton in his first full season following his shoulder surgery. They don't like to use him for more than one inning and are nervous about using him in back-to-back games.
Burton said he believes the careful handling has been a big reason for his success -- that, along with a swimming routine he has added during the week, one he believes has been the best conditioning for his shoulder.
"With the mechanics of it, you're lengthening and strengthening at the same time and not tightening anything up," he said.
Burton's status on the team has risen through the season. Spending all that time with other relievers has made him a popular figure.
"He's kind of like the camaraderie staple," Duensing said. "He's very big on doing things together. He thinks everyone should be on time, and he's not afraid to heckle you a little bit if you are constantly behind or if we are always waiting on someone.
"But he likes to have fun. He likes to do some things in the bullpen to keep everyone loose."
Burton, like the rest of the team, is not happy with the mounting losses on the field. But getting to spend a full summer in a major league bullpen has been a long time coming for him.
"It's been an enjoyable year," he said. "There are a lot of good dudes in here."