They were linked with a lot of the big names like Zack Britton and David Robertson. In the end, General Manager Mike Rizzo went a little outside the box and swung a deal for two Oakland Athletics relievers in Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle.
While Madson was effective for the team, his tenure in D.C. was relatively forgettable.
Meanwhile, Doolittle will be remembered fondly as he ended his three-and-a-half-year stint with a World Series ring and became a resounding fan favorite in the nation’s capital.
In 147 appearances for the Nationals, Doolittle became a staple at the back-end of the bullpen, recording 75 saves to the tune of a 3.03 ERA with a 28.2% strikeout rate and 5.7% walk rate.
He was also a National League All-Star in 2018 when he was arguably one of the best relievers in all of baseball with a sparkling 1.60 ERA while striking out 60 hitters in 45 innings, walking just six, and blowing only one save opportunity in 27 chances.
On Tuesday, Doolittle will return to Nationals Park for the first time as a visitor, and for the first time with fans since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series.
“I honestly don’t know what to expect,” Doolittle told reporters on Sunday ahead of the series. “Very early on in Spring Training, I did look at the schedule to see when we were coming back to D.C. and I have so many incredible memories from my time there. It’s going to be special for sure.”
Coming back to a major league stadium he used to call home isn’t something the left-hander has experienced yet though, having only played for three major league teams in the Athletics, the Nationals, and now the Cincinnati Reds.
“This is my first time playing against a team that I used to be on,” Doolittle explained. “When I was with the Nats we never played the A’s. This is the first time going through something like this. And then when you’re part of a team that won a World Series, I think it becomes a lot different.
“But I’m looking forward to being back in D.C., to being back at Nats Park, and seeing some of the guys on the team and the support staff with the Nats. I had some really special relationships there.
“I’m so grateful for my time there that I’m looking forward to coming back. I think there’s going to be a wave of emotions but I don’t really know what to expect, to be honest.”
After all of the highs and the few lows that Doolittle experienced as a member of the Nats, emotions are bound to run high for the left-hander when he receives his likely video tribute.
“I think the biggest one will be gratitude,” Doolittle said of the emotions he expects. “I loved my time with the Nats, I loved everything about it. I loved the way the fans embraced me. I loved the way that the guys, especially in the training room, took care of me. I love the guys on the team and the support that we had for each other.
“So I really think it’ll be mostly just remembering really how special that was, to be able to win a World Series with that group, the oldest team in baseball that year, and the run that we went on.
“Seeing fans back at Nats Park I think is going to be really special as well. I’ve only just within the last couple of days really allowed myself to think about it a little bit.”
And as he’s thought his inevitable return to Nationals Park, so have his new teammates.
With his new team, Doolittle is considered the experienced head and at 34-years-old is the second-oldest member of the bullpen, and they will no doubt be hoping that the left-hander can provide some postseason experience to a relief corps that currently lacks it.
“The guys here want to know, my bullpen mates here want to know if I’m going to get a thank you video,” Doolittle joked. “This is how different it is here, I’m one of the oldest guys on the team here, they want to know if they think the Nats’ people who put the video together will be able to colorize the video because I’m so old. So, they’re all like ‘let us know what time the thank you video is because we want to be out there for it.’
“That’s not my way of asking for a thank you video, that’s them disrespecting their elders.”
While the reliever’s spell in the nation’s capital will always invoke unforgettable memories for Doolittle and Nats fans, it did end on something of a sour note.
Despite an exceptional start to the 2019 season, Doolittle faded in the final third of the season, suffering from fatigue after excessive use, and landed on the Injured List.
While he did return and was effective right at the end of the season and throughout the playoffs, the gremlins returned again in the shortened 2020 season.
Doolittle struggled with fastball velocity initially and landed on the IL again after just five appearances.
He returned at the end of August, but then on September 10th, Doolittle tore his oblique. It was a sudden and unfortunate ending to his season and his tenure with the Nationals.
After such an abrupt end to his time in D.C. in a strange season with no fans at the ballpark, did it feel like he lacked closure on his time with the Nationals?
“Yeah, that sucked,” Doolittle responded. “That sucked big time because my last game I tore my oblique, I walked off the field, and I got to come in the next day to meet the doctor and meet with the team doctors so that they could read the MRI. And then I was like ‘alright, what time should I come in tomorrow?’ thinking I was going to start rehab or do something with the training staff, and they were like ‘Oh, you can’t come in any more,’ and that was it. That was it for me.
“I got to come back to the stadium the day after the season ended to pick up my stuff, and that was it.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye or thank you or have that, not that I wanted a send-off, but you can’t even make the rounds in the clubhouse to say goodbye to the boys and to say thank you to the staff and everything like that. Yeah, that stung and that really sucked for a little bit for sure.
“So, that’s like another reason, there are some people I haven’t seen in that clubhouse since I got hurt, since I walked off the field that night in September. So yeah, and then like I said, having the fans back will be really really special as well.”
According to Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post, the Nationals had “light discussions of [Doolittle] returning” early in this past offseason. Those discussions didn’t amount to anything and with Spring Training approaching, Doolittle signed a $1.5 million deal with the Reds.
There have been more mixed results for Doolittle in Cincinnati to start the 2021 season.
Through 20 appearances, he holds a 4.15 ERA, striking out 26 in 17.1 innings and walking eight. His velocity has returned somewhat though, with an average fastball velocity of 93mph, according to Statcast, up from the 90.7mph he averaged in 2020.
Perhaps most importantly though, his fastball spin-rate is the highest of his career, creating more of the upward movement on his four-seamer that made him successful with the Nats.
“It’s been really encouraging,” Doolittle explained of his progress in 2021.
“I feel like I’m, overall this year, throwing the ball with a lot more confidence than I was definitely last year and at many points during the 2019 season.
“Just feeling more comfortable, feeling like I’m not searching out there and that I can trust the fastball again and know that, even if the location isn’t exactly where we want it, that there’s enough life on it, there’s enough deception on it that I can get away with it. And when you feel like that, you can stay in attack mode a lot better.”
Doolittle has also been used in a slightly different role than he had with the Nationals.
In the nation’s capital, for the most part, he was the sole closer for the team. Then later in his time with the Nats, as his effectiveness faded, he was a setup man and a left-handed specialist.
In Cincinnati, manager David Bell doesn’t have a defined closer. Instead, four relievers have had at least one save opportunity this year and three relievers have recorded at least one save.
“I also think a big part of it too is the way that David manages the bullpen,” Doolittle said.
“He really looks for matchups and tries to get guys into spots where they match up really well with the opposing lineup.
“We don’t run the bullpen in a way where it’s like ‘Okay, you’re the 7th inning guy no matter what. You’re the 8th inning guy. And you’re the closer.’ On any given night there’s like four or five of us that can pitch those last three or four innings of a game and I’ve been lucky that David has found good spots for me, spots where there might be a lot of lefties, and that kind of maximizes the effectiveness, I think.”
Because of the flexibility that Doolittle enjoys with the Reds, it should give him more chance of appearing at some point in this series at Nationals Park, and give the fans their chance to show him some appreciation on the field.
After all, Doolittle was a huge fan favorite on Half Street not just for his performance on the field for the team, but for what he was able to do off the field with all of his philanthropic work, including his work with the LGBTQ+ community and for military families in need.
For that, Doolittle will always hold a special place in Nationals fans’ hearts, just as D.C. will always hold a special place in his, even if he no longer dons the Curly W.
“I feel like I developed a pretty special relationship with the fans in the time that I was there. I’m super grateful for their support and that’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to is, you know, having fans back at Nats Park and just being able to see some of them again, some familiar faces and say thank you in person because I really do appreciate the way embraced me and my wife.”