Sean Doolittle went on the 10-Day Injured List with right knee tendinitis this past Sunday, after the latest in a series of rough outings for the Washington Nationals’ closer, but the reliever’s skipper Davey Martinez wanted the left-hander to know that he would still have the job when he returned to the bullpen.
“When he does come back, he’s our closer,” Martinez said. “And I reiterated that to him. He’s our closer ... but we’ve got to get him right.”
Martinez told reporters the same before the start of the Nationals’ four-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night in PNC Park.
“He’s earned the right to be closer,” Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“And he’s proved that time and again.”
Doolittle appreciated the support, but said he had to be better than he had been before the IL stint, when he gave up 13 hits (five home runs), and 10 earned runs in four innings (22.50 ERA) before acknowledging that he needed a break to get things right.
“I mean, that’s awesome to get that vote of confidence from your manager,” Doolittle said. “But I have to pitch better if I want to stay in that role.”
“I’ve been trying to grind it out,” Doolittle explained on Monday, “... and there’s a fine line between wanting to pitch through something and help the team and be a part of what we have going on, but you don’t want to do it at the expense of costing the team and further jeopardizing your long-term health, and we thought it was best, and I agreed, to take some time to get myself right and come back almost as a September call-up that’s ready to go to help the team down the stretch.”
Fatigue and mechanical issues, the reliever explained, had led to a decline in the spin rate, velocity, and life on his fastball.
“Everybody knows I’m going to attack the zone with fastballs, and they’re ready to go, and when I’m right I can exploit that aggressiveness,” Doolittle told reporters.
“We talked about I can tease them above the zone, I can get them to swing at pitches in off the plate or whatever, because they have to make up their minds so quickly because they don’t see it. Now they’re seeing it, it’s lost a lot of that deception. I think there’s a lot of things I can do from a mechanical standpoint to get my body back into a better position to get that life on the ball back.”
Doolittle, GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday, had help trying to break down what changed in his mechanics, and what was behind his struggles in recent weeks, after he put up a 2.81 ERA with a .247/.296/.395 line against over his first 49 games and 48 IP this season, as he saved 25 games in 29 opportunities.
“We watched a lot of film, Davey, [Pitching Coach] Paul Menhart, and myself, to see if we saw any mechanical differences between Doo last year or early this year and recently, and we think we picked out a couple of things. Maybe because of the knee tendinitis he’s not exploding down the slope of the mound like he was early in the season, he’s not getting to his big balance athletic point where he can explode into the hitter which gives him that ride on the fastball and an extra mile or two on his velocity, so there’s different things that we think we’ve identified.
“Doo is a very astute, mechanical guy and really knows his body and mechanics, and he knows the art of pitching very, very well, and one of the more intelligent athletes that I’ve been around in a long time, so we’re going to figure this thing out and get Doo back after this little hiatus I think of the IL I think he’ll be refreshed and we can ride him into the last four or five weeks of the season and into the postseason.”
And when he does come back, Rizzo said, agreeing with the Nationals’ manager, Doolittle will be the closer, provided he can get right and return to form.
“I think Doolittle comes into it as the closer,” Rizzo told the Junkies. “I don’t think you lose your job because you get injured. He’s been an All-Star closer, so I think whoever gives you the best chance to close out those games is the guy, and I think Doolittle gives us that best chance going into it. That’s not to say Davey’s not going to give [Hunter] Strickland and [Daniel] Hudson and [Roenis] Elías, they all have saves in their history, as does [Fernando] Rodney, and you’re talking about Hudson’s got  saves in his career, and Strickland has 21, and Rodney has 327 I see right here, Elías was 14 out of 16 this year with the Mariners, so we’ve got some guys with some closing experience which I think gives Davey more options, I think he can mix and match more, but I think when we’re hitting on all our cylinders, and we’re playing at our best, our All-Star closer Doolittle is rested, healthy, mechanically sound and pitching like the All-Star that he is.”