Sean Doolittle went on the Injured List in mid-August, which Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said at the time would hopefully help the closer, who’d struggled before ending up on the IL with right knee tendinitis and arm fatigue after he’d gotten a lot of work with the Nats’ bullpen a problem all season long.
“He has been taxed. He has been worked,” Rizzo acknowledged in an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies.
“We had to be careful going into the season. We knew that he’s a maintenance guy that we have to maintain, he hasn’t been on the [Injured List], thank god, and he’s a guy that’s been on the [Injured List] for the last couple of years, which has given him a break during the season to finish out the season strong. So he hasn’t had that break this year, so we’re going to really have to manage his workload and be really smart with him.”
Davey Martinez worked Doolittle back in slowly once he returned to the bullpen, and built the left-hander back up in low and then higher-leverage outings, but according to the 33-year-old reliever, who posted a 2.25 ERA, two walks, seven strikeouts, and a .111/.172/.222 line against in nine appearances and eight innings pitched down the stretch, he didn’t feel like himself again until the end of the regular season or even the postseason.
Asked to pinpoint an appearance when he finally felt like he was back, Doolittle pointed to the next-to-last regular season series and the NLDS.
“The one that comes to mind the most is I got a save opportunity against the Phillies during the last homestand,” he explained, “... and I think it was the -- I don’t remember the date. I don’t know what today is even, so there’s no way I remember what day that was, but it was the day after we clinched, I think. I struck out three guys, and that was the most swings and misses that I had gotten on my fastball. The late life was definitely there.”
Doolittle struck out three batters on 17 pitches in that outing, with seven swinging and two called strikes on his fastball, which sat 94-95 MPH.
“That was the outing where I first really felt like my stuff was back, but even then, like it had been a little inconsistent because my next outing after that was against the Indians. It went okay. I gave up a home run, but I wasn’t missing bats like I was. I wasn’t getting the swings and misses.”
“I think really, to be honest with you,” he added, “the first game against the Dodgers in the Division Series was when I really felt like I had my stuff back. Even though [Max] Muncy clipped me, I was really happy with how I was moving the ball around and the late life that it had.
“Even — since the playoffs have started — I’ve even gone back and watched that outing against the Phillies, as well, just to kind of keep it in the front of my mind.
“It’s been a process, but fortunately, we’re getting it at the right time.”
The home run by Muncy accounts for one of the two home runs he’s allowed in October, with the other coming around on a misplay by Michael A. Taylor that gave St. Louis their first run of the NLCS.
Doolittle said on Sunday afternoon that in hindsight the stint on the Injured List ended up allowing him to get back to how he felt before the injury issue cropped up and fatigue set in.
“I feel a lot better than I did at that time back in August,” he said. “I think that time off that I had when I was on the IL, even though it was two weeks, it was a really good reset for my body. It allowed me to -- like we had talked about back then, the strengthening work that we did for my right leg -- I was dealing with that tendinitis in my knee -- and it’s allowed me to get into such a better position mechanically on the mound, and I think over the last few weeks, my stuff has really started to come back and I’ve been able to throw the ball with a lot more confidence here. So fortunately, the timing worked out right, and there’s a whole kind of litany of maintenance exercises that I have to do to keep my knee in a good spot, but fortunately, I’ve been feeling pretty good.”
With Doolittle back, and Daniel Hudson going strong since he was acquired in late July, the Nationals have a nice 1-2 punch in the late innings, which Davey Martinez said he’s trying to take advantage of when things work out, using dual closers depending upon matchups and availability.
“Dual closers, yeah,” Davey Martinez said last week. “Yeah, you know what, we tried -- after [Doolittle] came off the IL. We were building him up to get to this point. I said this all year that in a perfect world he’s our closer, he’s done it, he understands it, he knows the role, he’s good at it. But we wanted to build him up. And now he’s throwing the ball about as best as I’ve seen him throw the ball pretty much all year. His fastball is good, spin rate’s good, he’s a huge spin rate guy, and he’s using other pitches very well. So with him and Huddie in the 8th and 9th and maybe in the 7th, I feel like we got a nice stopgap there.”
Doolittle has been impressed with Hudson’s work since he arrived. He said he didn’t know the right-hander well before the Nationals acquired him, other than the fact he, “... threw really, really hard.”
“I can’t say enough about what an awesome addition he’s been to our bullpen,” Doolittle said, “... and to our clubhouse, obviously, stabilizing the bullpen and picking us up down there more times than we can count.
“But he’s an awesome teammate, and we’re really lucky to have him.”
And Doolittle, who’s dealt with his share of injuries in his career, said that what he’s learned about Hudson since he arrived has only deepened his admiration for the veteran reliever.
“I knew a little bit about his story,” Doolittle explained, “... that he had pretty much back-to-back Tommy John surgeries, and as a guy that spent a lot of time on the IL throughout the course of his career, I have a ton of respect for guys that have to battle back from stuff like that. I don’t know, I think this year he’s taken his game to a whole new level.”
With solid starts from Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer in the first two games of the NLCS, a 1 1⁄3-inning save from Doolittle in Game 1 (with Hudson away from the team for the birth of his child) and a hold for Doo in Game 2 before Hudson came on for the final two outs of the ninth, the Nats are up 2-0, something that Doolittle said was more than they could ask for as they get ready for the third game of the series tonight in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t want to say it was like unrealistic, but that would have felt like maybe too much to ask even for like a best case scenario,” Doolittle said. “You have your two starters take no- hitters past the seventh inning, and we get some timely hitting and come out of there with both games, I mean, that is absolutely -- we literally couldn’t have scripted it any better.”