Burnes' record streak: 58 K's before 1st walk

May 14th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Fifty-eight strikeouts before a single walk.

And a double dose of Major League history for -- even after a two-week layoff.

The Elias Sports Bureau has records back to 1893, when the mound was set at 60 feet, six inches, and no one has ever started a season like the 26-year-old Brewers right-hander, who kept filling the strike zone in Milwaukee’s 2-0 loss to the Cardinals on Thursday afternoon at American Family Field to break one all-time record for most strikeouts before a pitcher issues his first walk in a season and another record for most strikeouts without a walk in any stretch of any season.

For the former mark, the record to open a season had belonged to Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who struck out 51 batters in 2017 before he walked one. Next on the list is the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright at 35, who held the all-time record for a starting pitcher before Burnes broke it April 20 in San Diego.

And for the latter, the record for consecutive strikeouts without a walk in any stretch of a season had belonged to the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, who set the mark way back on ... Wednesday night against the Rays. Cole is still riding his streak of 56 strikeouts without a walk, and he’ll get a chance to jump back in front of Burnes in his next turn through New York’s rotation.

Burnes ran his strikeout streak to 58 with a pair of whiffs to open the fifth inning -- his eighth and ninth strikeouts of the game -- before finally throwing a ball four to Cards leadoff hitter Tommy Edman. For the second time in the game, fans rose and delivered a standing ovation.

“Whenever you get the whole stadium behind you and you’re getting cheered on, you definitely get some chills,” Burnes said. “It was a pretty cool moment, to do it here at home. It came pretty early on in the game, so it was one of those things where you’ve got to stay locked in because it was so early on, continue to focus and get back to work.”

How close to the edge of perfection has Burnes pitched this season? Before Thursday's walk, any three-ball count had been a full-blown event. In five outings before Burnes tested positive for COVID-19 and spent two asymptomatic weeks on the injured list, he threw only 23 of his 434 pitches in three-ball counts. Only two of the first 108 hitters he faced started in 3-0 counts -- Edman was one of them, back on April 8 in St. Louis. Burnes came back to strike out both of them.

Against the Cardinals, No. 2 hitter Dylan Carlson found himself in a full count and struck out on a cutter below the zone that could have been ball four. Fifty strikeouts, no walks.

Two batters later, after Nolan Arenado’s RBI single gave the Cardinals the lead, Burnes went 2-0 against patient veteran Matt Carpenter, who swung at the next pitch and blooped a single to center field that produced the day’s first defensive highlight, with Luis Urías firing home to cut down Arenado after Arenado ignored a stop sign at third base. It was the first of the Brewers’ trio of defensive gems, including a pair of Cardinals runners thrown out at home.

In the second inning, Tyler O’Neill got to a 3-1 count but swung through consecutive cutters in the zone. Fifty-one strikeouts, no walks.

The next batter was Harrison Bader, who saw three types of pitches from Burnes in a five-pitch at-bat. Burnes went to his signature cutter again in a 2-2 count and dotted the low outside quadrant. Bader swung through it, and Burnes had his place in history. Fifty-two strikeouts, no walks.

“We’re talking about baseball history,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re talking about rare air and special records. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Burnes kept going until Edman finally took a free pass. Partly because he’d been sidelined for two weeks before returning from the injured list for Thursday’s start, and partly because the pitcher’s spot came around in the bottom of the fifth inning with the Brewers in a 1-0 deficit, Burnes’ afternoon ended after 78 pitches. He was charged with one run on five hits in five innings, with one walk and nine strikeouts. His ERA after six starts is 1.57. His 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings leads Major Leaguers who have logged at least 20 innings.

But Burnes’ record is 2-3 and the Brewers have managed to lose four of his six starts because of too many days like Thursday, when the hitters were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-18 with runners on base against Jack Flaherty and three relievers.

It marked the third time that the Brewers were shut out in a Burnes start. In the fourth loss he started, they scored one run.

In this series, starters Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Burnes combined to hold St. Louis to two runs in 19 2/3 innings, with three walks and 27 strikeouts. But Brewers hitters were 2-for-31 with runners in scoring position and the Cardinals won two of the three games.

“It's the team that gets the hits with RISP is how you score runs. We're in a rut with it,” Counsell said. “We're not getting it done in those spots right now."

But Burnes, Counsell said, “did as much as we could have possibly asked, and he should be in a good spot moving forward.”

He looked good from the opposing dugout, too.

“This guy pitching, I’ll just say this,” Wainwright said on the YouTube broadcast during the second inning, “this guy pitching is ridiculously nasty. I did not appreciate [that] he broke my record for starting pitchers starting a season with no walks and most strikeouts, and he’s just blown it out of the water.”

The most amazing part of Burnes’ story is that he went from one of the worst pitchers in the National League in 2019, when his 8.82 ERA was the highest for any NL pitcher who worked as many as his 49 innings, to one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past season-plus. In ’20, he made a bid to be the first pitcher in Brewers history to win an ERA title before a left oblique injury spoiled his season finale.

So far in 2021, Burnes has been even better.

“Corbin was talented. We believed he could be a starter. We just got off track in '19, you know?” Counsell said last month. “And I give Corbin a ton of credit here, I think he fixed it. He went on a mission to fix himself and to identify the problems and to figure out what was going on."

Burnes found the answers he was seeking on a number of fronts. He had Lasik surgery and worked extensively with a mental skills coach, a commitment that Burnes cites as critical to the success that has followed. He made a subtle grip change that transformed a four-seam fastball into a cutter with crazy movement and -- this is key -- far better command. He threw it more than 30 percent of the time in 2020 and is over 50 percent so far in ’21.

Now comes Burnes’ next challenge: Keep it going after his strikeout streak is over.

“It wasn’t a goal,” Burnes said, “to not walk anyone. Obviously, you don’t want to put guys on base, and you want to make them earn it. But to go that long without one is pretty special, and now I guess I’ve got to start over.”