As the Washington Nationals slowly rose from the depths of their 19-31 start, there was a sense of cautious optimism among fans. The wins were piling up, but the team still had one glaring weakness that threatened to strike at the most crucial points in games: the bullpen.
The ugly 5.68 ERA that ranked second-worst in the league led to an NL-high 29 blown saves for the Nationals’ relief corps, spoiling potential victories into repeated, utter disappointment. But amidst that mess, there was one rock that manager Davey Martinez used as often as he could to avoid turning to literally anyone else.
Sean Doolittle, who entered the season as the Nationals’ presumptive closer, was called on to pitch in back-to-back days 16 times over his first 54 appearances—including a July 24 doubleheader in which he picked up both saves. He ultimately led the majors in games finished with 55, and his 4.05 ERA doesn’t do justice to just how important he was over the first four months of the season.
But the injury-prone Doolittle had never seen usage like this in his career. In late July, he began to show signs of fatigue. The flyball rate off his fastball skyrocketed and he induced fewer swings and misses. His velocity was still there, but it was clear he wasn’t hitting his spots as much as he used to. From July 29 through August 17, he allowed 12 earned runs in nine innings—blowing two saves and picking up a pair of losses.
So after that 54th appearance, in which he allowed four runs in a blown save against the Milwaukee Brewers that led to one of the wildest games of the year, the Nationals placed Doolittle on the 10-Day Injured List with right knee tendinitis. He missed 13 games before returning on September 1st, once rosters expanded.
The Nationals eased him back into action, pitching him in low-leverage situations and allowing Daniel Hudson to take over the closer role. Doolittle pitched well, albeit making some fans nervous with a few loud outs along the way, but he finally notched a save Sept. 25 in what represented his return to being a reliable arm.
Doolittle has since appeared in seven postseason games, and the Nationals have won all of them. Only once has he been needed on back-to-back days, but Martinez has asked him to pitch more than one inning four times and he’s delivered. Doolittle has already picked up two saves and three holds during this playoff run, putting together a 2.08 ERA and 0.462 WHIP.
“After he came off the IL, we were building him up to get to this point,” Martinez said before Game 2 of the NLCS. “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.”
The presence of Doolittle in the Nationals’ bullpen has been a godsend for the team ever since it acquired him midseason in 2017. After years of question marks in the ninth inning, the Nationals finally found their guy. He has a $6.5 million option for next season, which will undoubtedly be picked up.
With only two relievers in D.C. who can be counted on in high-leverage situations, Doolittle will continue to be a key pitcher for the Nationals as they look to carry over their momentum from the first two games of the World Series. And if the Nationals do end this series with a celebration on the mound, it could very well be Doolittle whose reaction will be ingrained in the memories of Nats fans for the rest of their lives.
As the embodiment of the Nationals’ hidden success during their abysmal start, there might not be a player more fitting to secure that final out.