Washington Nationals’ reliever Sean Doolittle was determined to avoid having his Opening Day preview interview produce any viral moments, after a Zoom call at the start of Spring Training 2.0 generated headlines when the 33-year-old southpaw highlighted early issues with the testing process for COVID-19.
Having been through three weeks of coronavirus protocols in Nationals Park, Doolittle said on Wednesday that things have worked out well for everyone involved in Washington, D.C., and the testing result delays seem to have been sorted out.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” Doolittle told reporters, “and to give credit where credit is due, the testing turnaround and those protocols have been running, really, really well.
“We’ve gotten — I think it was maybe one or two tests after that interview, it really started to fall into place and all of our results have come back within that 48-hour window.
“Most of the time it comes in really late at night and I wake up and I have the notification on my phone in the morning, so I think that’s something that has helped a lot of players feel a lot more comfortable — I know it has for me, to be able to make and adjustment like that, and get everything turned around a lot quicker. I know that really helps. I think it’s really important to know our staff here has done an absolutely incredible job with the way that they’ve been reminding players about the protocols, and enforcing the protocols, and sanitizing everything after a player touches literally any piece of equipment or any training table, adjustments we’ve made pacing out our weight room and putting a bunch of stuff out here in the tunnel. Our organization and our staff has done a lot of stuff as well that has really helped things run as smoothly as possible in this strange world that we’re living in right now.”
Major League Baseball is trying to bring their game back in an ongoing pandemic, and it’s not going to be easy, but the league and its players are doing what they can to make their 60-game season work.
“I think this whole season is kind of an example of the kind of measures that it takes to resume a lot of things during the pandemic,” Doolittle said when asked about being in tonight’s season opener, which is the first game being played under these conditions.
“So I think it will be an important and kind of powerful statement tomorrow when people [are] watching the game and there’s guys in the dugouts wearing masks, and people are social distancing, and players have fully bought into these protocols because we want to play and we know that this is what it’s going to take to be able to have a chance and be able to resume this season safely.
“So if anything, I think the whole season, summer camp, and the regular season, is just an example of the kind of lengths you have to go to in order to make it safe for people to resume work during a pandemic.”
Things will be different of course. The most obvious change will involve the games being played in empty ballparks, since fans in the stands during an ongoing pandemic was not going to work.
Relievers, of course, are sometimes adrenaline junkies, so in addition to having to adjust to the new normal in the country and the league, players are going to have to find ways to get the adrenaline pumping without the support of hometown fans or jeering of the opposition supporters.
“It’s really different,” Doolittle said of his experience of running out to the mound in an empty ballpark.
“I thrive very much on the atmosphere and the energy in the stadium when I’m pitching,” he explained, “I really throughout my career, I’ve learned to kind of channel that energy.
“Whether it’s the home fans cheering you or the road fans, the other team’s fans trying to get in your head a little bit, and create a distraction, you get the adrenaline rush, and it’s all about how you used it. And right now there was not an adrenaline rush last night when I was coming into the game. It’s something that I struggle with in Spring Training every year, just because there isn’t that rush when you come out of the bullpen there either.
“That’s going to be an adjustment that I’m going to have to make. How do you get yourself to that point?”
Doolittle, as always, has some ideas for getting himself pumped up for his appearances.
“Without those fans there, I’m going to have to have — I don’t know, some extra Red Bulls or some coffees or something,” Doolittle said
“Maybe have somebody in the bullpen yell at me, from afar, from far away with a mask on or something. I don’t know.
“That’s going to be a challenge. It’s a challenge for everybody, so we just have to figure out how to adapt to it.”
Doolittle’s also been adapting to the fact that his velocity isn’t quite where he is used to it being, as he works with a lower leg kick he started using late last season when he ran into injury issues in August and wanted to lessen the strain on a bothersome knee.
“I think it’s kind of a combination of things,” he said after his velo was around 89-90 in his appearance in Nationals Park on Tuesday night.
“The lower leg kick, we implemented that last September when I came off the IL following the knee injury,” he explained.
“It was just a way to simplify my delivery a little bit, and take some of the moving parts out of it, and I felt really comfortable with it in September and October.
“Fast forward to this year, in Spring Training, to be honest I don’t think I had fully recovered from 2019, so the quarantine was a little bit of a reset for me that I needed. Physically, I feel really good.
“Last night was frustrating, because I feel so good, to not have it be coming out the way I wanted it to with Opening Day being tomorrow is certainly a little frustrating.”
“Spent a lot of time going over film last night,” he added, “... and there’s some mechanical things that I really think I can clean up to get back to where I was at the end of last season and into the playoffs, so that’s kind of unfortunately one of the parts about this season that we’re all kind of adjusting to, there’s not a lot of time really to make those fixes, it’s about competing, and I’m excited to go out there and compete with my teammates.”