Jared Burton has given up home runs in three of his five appearances this season, and Tuesday night was the worst. After recording two easy groundouts to open the ninth inning, the Twins righthander walked three consecutive Blue Jays batters to load the bases, then grooved a 90-mile-per-hour cut fastball that Brett Lawrie hit off the upper-deck facing at Target Field.
That grand slam doubled the number of runs Burton has given up this season, plumping up his ERA to an alarming 14.40.
Fortunately, the Twins setup man has pinpointed the problem.
“I’m just human,” Burton said following the Twins’ 9-3 loss to Toronto. “We’re under a little bit of a microscope, and when we struggle it shows.”
In other words, don’t worry about Burton. As he points out, he goes through ups and downs every season, just like all pitchers. Last season he had an ERA of 11.00 from June 6 to July 1, yet he still finished the season at 3.82. In 2012, his ERA was at 14.73 during a four-appearance stretch May 13-24, but his 2.18 mark over the entire season persuaded the Twins to guarantee him $5.5 million over two years.
“We all go through these phases,” Burton said. “It’s just a matter of stopping a slump and starting a streak. That’s what I’m going to be trying to do, day in and day out.”
His manager hasn’t lost any faith in him. Ron Gardenhire said he still intends to use Burton in his normal eighth-inning role whenever those situations come up.
“Burtie’s a good pitcher,” Gardenhire said.
“He’s just got to pitch through it. He’s a big-leaguer, he’s got good stuff.”
At the moment, though, his ability to put those pitches where he wants them has waned.
He has walked five and struck out three, a recipe for disaster for a one-inning pitcher.
“I’m just not commanding anything right now,” Burton said. “I’m behind everybody, and it’s a lot easier to hit when you’re ahead in the count.”
Wednesday’s roughing-up by Toronto wasn’t entirely shocking, considering Burton had not pitched for six days, and the temperature was just above 30 degrees when he entered the game.
“We all know guys have to pitch to stay sharp,” Gardenhire said. “But you go through stretches when you’re using them too much, you go through stretches when you don’t use them very much. That’s what relievers have to deal with.”
True, though Burton — in his third season with the Twins after five with Cincinnati — has always been more dependent than most on regular work. His career ERA when he has pitched the day before is 2.09, and with one day of rest it’s 2.76. If he has had four or more days off, however, his ERA jumps to 6.33.
None of which matters much to the unflappable 32-year-old reliever.
“I don’t really look at the numbers. I look at the fact that I’m going to probably have 65 more games to pitch this year,” he said.
“That’s a lot of chances to figure it out and get back to doing what I do.”