The Washington Nationals were leading the Baltimore Orioles 3-0 heading into the eighth inning Saturday night when Sean Doolittle took the mound for the fourth time in the 2020 season. Maybe the recorded fan soundtrack at Nationals Park needs louder “Doooos, or maybe Doolittle needs to find a way to pick up the velocity, because he’s not feeling much love. Now his trusted setup-closer partner Daniel Hudson’s perfect start to 2020 is over, and the team again has bullpen questions.
Surely, cleaning up after a strong start and middle relief effort from Austin Voth, Javy Guerra, and Tanner Rainey, Doolittle’s .444 opponents batting average would flatten out, and he could get three outs to set up Daniel Hudson for the save.
“I thought that was the perfect spot for Doo,” said Nats manager Davey Martinez after the game. “
Not this time. Doolittle did his best Clayton Kershaw impersonation, surrendering back-to-back homers to Pat Valaika and Pedro Severino. Most managers would have pulled him then, but under the new MLB rules this season, Doolittle had to face at least three batters. That third batter, Chris Davis, was Doolittle’s third strikeout victim of the season, actually giving him a calculable ERA for the game.
“It’s really, really frustrating, and I feel terrible. I’m letting the team down. I put Huddy (closer Daniel Hudson) in a really, really tough spot,” Doolittle said afterward.
The Nats certainly could have used a “big boy save” from Hudson, but the Game 7 savior couldn’t deliver this time. Entering the game with an ERA of 0.00, Hudson walked Austin Hays on 11 pitches, then watched Hanser Alberto’s hot shot off Trea Turner’s glove drop in for a single. His next pitch might have been the first all season he’d want to have back, after Anthony Santander took it deep to left.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get it back,” Hudson told reporters afterward. “I just go out there and try to throw it as hard as I can and try to hit a spot.”
Hudson recovered for the final two outs, but an efficient pitching effort had been wasted, and Hudson was on the hook for a blown save and a loss, while Doolittle was trying to make sense of another frustrating outing.
“I should be able to get through an inning,” Doolittle said afterward. “And it just hasn’t come together and I’ve been working really, really hard, all through Summer Camp and so far during the season, trying to get things to click.”
“We spoiled a pretty good outing from Austin there,” said Hudson.
Martinez isn’t ready to give up on part of back-end tandem that won a World Series last season.
“I’m not going to give up on him,” Martinez said. “We got to figure something out for him.”
Doolittle says he’s feeling fine.
“My knee feels strong. My arm feels good. Mechanically I might not be exactly where I want to be, but I feel physically like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89-90 [MPH], it should have some life on it.”
Doolittle says he’s been putting in extra work to make corrections.
“In the bullpen before games, staying late watching film, bringing it home on my iPad and trying to figure stuff out even when I’m not at the field,” he said.
For Hudson, one blown save after two successful chances is hardly a reason to panic, so his place as the Nats’ closer is secure. But maybe in an unconventional season, the conventional strategy of having a trusted setup-closer combination might not be the best idea.
Ryne Harper bounced back from Friday’s beating at the hands of young Oriole hitters with a scoreless ninth inning, including a strikeout. He and Rainey have been bright spots for the Nats’ bullpen this season and could slide into setup roles while Doolittle diagnoses and treats his difficulties this season.