When A.J. Burnett was unable to finish pitches last Friday against the Marlins en route to his second straight six-walk performance, the groin injury that ended his night looked like a potential deathblow to the Phillies' pitching staff.
Maybe it was a gift.
Burnett, pitching Thursday afternoon for the first time since being diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, had his best start as a Phillie. He threw seven shutout innings, put just five Braves on base and induced a season-high 13 groundouts.
The hernia has forced Burnett to shorten his stride on the mound and be less open in his delivery. And it looks like he'll be better for it.
Funny how the body works.
"It's gonna be a blessing in disguise I think," Burnett said of the injury after the Phillies' 1-0 win (see Instant Replay). "It's always gonna be there, but it helps me stay within myself. And a couple pitches [today] I tried to do too much, you could tell it wasn't right. But every time I was simple and just nice and easy, I was able to make effective pitches."
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg agreed.
"Yeah, it might be a blessing in disguise," Sandberg said. "That’s what he talked to me about, how well his bullpen [session] went when he decided that he’d be good to go today. So he was geared up and ready to go and he looked more effortless out there with the shorter stride and better command with that. So it could be a good thing."
Burnett struggled with control early against Atlanta, but not in the same way as his two prior outings. He did run eight three-ball counts Thursday afternoon and walked opposing pitcher Alex Wood in the third inning, but when he needed to, Burnett made pitches. And he wasn't missing way, way outside as he was against Miami.
"I've pitched with worse [injuries]," Burnett said. "Just one of those things I've got to stay on top of, and really focus on my delivery and that was the case today.
"It's hit and miss. I just try not to think about it, try to block it out. At this point I think I know what I'm doing with it. First time was a little scary, but now I know. It's different, it's not me, but I think the easier I can be out there and the calmer, the better I'll be."
It's yet another adjustment for Burnett to make. He's no stranger to those. Burnett entered the league throwing in the high-90s with inconsistent control, but over the years has developed more sink on his fastball and transitioned into one of the rare groundballers in baseball who can also pile up the strikeouts.
As we've cited many times since Burnett signed with the Phillies, he led the National League with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season, and from 2012-13 was second in the majors with a 57.8 percent groundball rate.
"We're stubborn," Burnett said of the pitching fraternity. "Especially when you have a good fastball, you wanna use it. But it was obvious what I needed, when I couldn't do it and when I could."
Burnett's next start will be Wednesday night at 10:10 p.m. at Dodger Stadium against Zack Greinke. It could come about 24 hours after Cole Hamels makes his season debut.
"I was just very simple, very smooth today," Burnett said, "and I'll try to carry that over to next week."