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Washington Nationals need Sean Doolittle to be Sean Doolittle again; and he’s almost there

Sean Doolittle has been gradually improving and the Nationals are hoping he’s ready for some important games in October.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Sean Doolittle earned his 29th save of the season with a scoreless inning of work against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, working around a one-out single in a quick, 17-pitch frame. Doolittle threw 14 of 17 fastballs, which sat 94-95, and he got seven swing and misses with the pitch, which Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said was another good sign that the veteran reliever is returning to form after struggling in August and landing on the Injured List with right knee tendinitis (and general fatigue).

“He looked really good. Really good,” Martinez said after the seventh scoreless appearance in eight outings since Doolittle returned from the IL. “So, we’ll keep him right there.

“But the fastball is coming out, he looks good, he’s got some confidence, so that’s good.”

It was also the first back-to-back appearances for Doolittle since he returned, which his manager explained was a big step.

“I’m pleased about where he’s at right now, so moving forward, I like it,” Martinez said, and getting his first save since mid-August provided a confidence boost as well.

“He’s been pitching well,” Martinez reiterated, “and today he closed out the game, which is huge for him confidence-wise, so that’s awesome for us as a club.”

“What I like now is his fluidity,” the manager said after the first of the back-to-back outings, which saw Doolittle retire the top of the Phillies’ order in order, getting César Hernandez, Bryce Harper, and Rhys Hoskins in a 15-pitch eighth in the first game of two in the nation’s capital on Tuesday.

“He threw the ball really well,” Martinez said.

“It’s coming out 95 now, which is nice. But he threw a couple of good sliders to Harper, which is really nice too, but if we can get him going like that, that would be phenomenal.”

Asked to evaluate Doolittle’s progress since he returned to the bullpen, Martinez said there were definitely positive developments.

“We’ve come a long way with Doo in the last month. He feels good. We’ve changed some things, we like where he’s at, he likes where he’s at a lot, and I told him, I said, ‘Hey, I know you’re used to striking guys out.’ I said, for him right now it’s just to get outs. It’s important for him to just worry about getting outs. He didn’t throw 25 pitches today, and he got three outs, I think he was under 20, so that to me is awesome, and if he can mix in his breaking balls like he did to left-handed hitters, that’s going to help him down the stretch here.”

As for what role he sees the southpaw in right now, after sending Doolittle out in the top of the eighth in a 3-1 game on Tuesday, before Daniel Hudson closed out the ninth.

He gave Doolittle a save opportunity on Wednesday, and Martinez said it could come down to matchups at this point, since he likes how both relievers are throwing.

“I like where [Doolittle is] at right now,” he explained. “I like where Hudson is at right now.

“Those two guys, they’re going to pitch the eighth and ninth inning, and if we can get them to do that that helps us out a lot. Look, with only one left-handed guy in the bullpen, it’s key that he can come in like he did today and get some big lefties out for us.”

“I’ve kind of just been trying to get ready and be available if that phone rings from the sixth inning on,” Doolittle said on Tuesday, “so you know, you’re watching the lineup, trying to see when the lefties might come up, and I had a pretty good idea, I was ready for all of those innings, so it worked our pretty well.”

Asked how he was feeling on Tuesday night, the 33-year-old lefty wasn’t making any bold declarations about being back, but he did say he likes where he’s at right now.

“We’re starting to miss barrels again,” Doolittle said, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.

“We’re getting popups and routine fly balls. I was able to use the slider effectively against the lefty in there. So, I’m happy with it. It’s another step forward. I’m not proclaiming to be back, by any means. I think this is still an ongoing process, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Since he return from the IL, Doolittle has a 1.29 ERA in eight games and seven innings, with two walks, seven Ks, and a .087 BAA.

Will Martinez match up in the eighth and ninth in the Wild Card game? Will he put Doolittle in in a save situation if the matchups are preferable? Or has Hudson done enough to earn himself an opportunity to close out games in October?

With Doolittle unavailable in the series finale with the Phillies on Thursday afternoon, it was Hudson throwing a quick, 19-pitch ninth in which he worked around a walk, with three Ks.