Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked after Sean Doolittle blew up in outings against the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds, but before he imploded in Saturday’s extra innings loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, about sticking with the 32-year-old closer and letting the left-hander figure things out after a rough stretch for the southpaw, who’d given up 12 hits, four home runs, and eight runs total in his previous 8 2⁄3 IP.
“I see Sean as our closer,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies last Wednesday.
“When he’s able and ready and in a closing situation I think we’ll pitch him. We’re able to be much more diligent with him, and schedule his days off much more willingly right now because we have so many more options, so we think that Sean is an All-Star closer, he’s got great stuff. He’s got the attitude and the fortitude to pitch the ninth inning, he’s shown that he can do it in the big situations, so he’s our ninth inning guy, but [manager Davey Martinez has] many, many more options to go and different routes to finish out games when Sean is down.”
The bullpen additions at the deadline late last month, Roenis Elías (currently on the 10-Day IL), Hunter Strickland, and Daniel Hudson, have given Martinez options, but the Nationals’ second-year skipper continued to send Doolittle out in save situations in spite of his recent struggles, and the fact that the closer admitted he was fatigued, having finished out more games than in any previous season, and appeared in more than he had since 2014.
“He has been taxed, he has been worked,” Rizzo acknowledged.
“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, but after the trade deadline, it’s given Davey the opportunity and the options to do that, so I think that you’ll see us be very much more diligent with the way we utilize him and his workload, and it will make him stronger at the end.”
Doolittle took the mound two days after those comments, and worked around a walk in a scoreless frame against the Brewers, but given a three-run lead to work with on Saturday night, the lefty struggled, with decreased velocity and three homers off him as the Brew Crew rallied from a three-run deficit in the ninth to take a one-run lead in what ended up being a 14-inning game.
“A three-run lead, that’s your closer,” Martinez said when asked about going with Doolittle, as opposed to the other options who were available at that point.
“I put him in with a one-run lead the other day and he did a great job, so we’ve got to put this one behind us and come back here in a few hours and do it again. I’m assuming tomorrow — later — he’ll probably be down, but like I said I’ll talk to him later on today.”
Asked at that point if his closer was healthy, Martinez told reporters that as far as he knew Doolittle was fine.
“He says he’s fine, he really is, and I’ve got to trust him,” the manager said. “It’s a conversation I’ll have with him tomorrow and see where he’s at. But we had a conversation with him today and he said he was good to go. Like I said before, we wouldn’t be in this position we are now without him, believe me, so we’ve got to figure him out.”
“Tonight, man, I just didn’t have anything,” Doolittle told reporters, including MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, after Saturday’s game. “So, yeah, we’re going to have to figure something out.
“I’m going to have to figure something out. Because this team, they deserve better right now.”
Less than 12 hours later, Doolittle was placed on the 10-Day Injured List with what the Nats described as right knee tendinitis.
“We had a conversation with him this morning,” Martinez said after the announcement.
“Came in, talked to him, talked to the medical staff. It came to a head when I talked to him that his right knee is bothering him, so we want to get it right, so we put him on the IL.
“Hopefully it won’t take as long, he’s back in 10 days, and when he does come back, he’s our closer. And I reiterated that to him. He’s our closer. So, but we’ve got to get him right.”
While it might make sense to lessen Doolittle’s load when/if he’s going to return, and match up with some other back end arms when the matchups are favorable for one of the righties, Martinez suggested it’s easier said than done.
“Look, we’re talking about a guy that’s been a really good closer for many, many years, so it’s easy to say because you’ve got other guys available — but for me, you’ve got to remember — I think about this whole team, I really do, but you’ve also got to think about why we’re here, and the reason why we’re here competing is because Doo has been so good.”
Now that’s he’s struggling though, wouldn’t it make more sense to give other pitchers some opportunities? Hopefully some time off is enough for Doolittle to return to the form he’s had during his time in D.C., before this recent stretch, but if he can’t get back to that place, what will Martinez do?