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Davey Martinez says Sean Doolittle remains Nationals closer

Davey Martinez says Sean Doolittle remains Nationals closer

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle feels better, which is the first step in all of this, and the priority from the start.

His brain and left arm are feeling more vibrant. A three-day break when he first went on the injured list Aug, 18 helped regenerate both. They needed it. Doolittle’s arm was worn down from throwing pitches. His brain became fatigued when those pitches were being smashed around the park and he could not find a remedy for the cause. 

The break is almost over. Doolittle expects to be activated this weekend when Miami is in town. When he does return, Davey Martinez says the reliever’s role will remain the same as it has been for two years. 

“Moving forward, Doolittle will be our closer,” Martinez said Tuesday.

Returning to that spot still includes further action. Doolittle is scheduled to throw a simulation game Wednesday. He hopes for expanded feedback and 30, 35 pitches from the process. Doolittle thinks his fastball was crisp during three bullpen sessions since being on the injured list. Facing hitters will give him a better read. 

“I’ve been staying pretty busy,” Doolittle said. “Kind of the general overall philosophy we’ve been working with is rather than sitting around and letting it rest. I think the best way to handle this was to kind of like kickstart the engine a little bit."

Posture, quad strengthening and his drive from the mound have been focuses. They also feed each other. Doolittle felt he was rolling through his windup in part because of the knee tendinitis listed as the official reason he went on the injured list. Putting his right foot in the ground when leading to home plate hurt. He slouched. His hand dropped behind the ball, pushing it more than snapping it toward the plate.

The result was fastballs with less rotation and bad location. Doolittle’s ERA rocketed up. His position as closer came into question. 

Martinez has remained steady in his assertion Doolittle is the team’s closer. Where he’s wavered is defining what, precisely, that means for the rest of the season. 

Daniel Hudson has operated as the de-facto closer in Doolittle’s absence. Hunter Strickland has pitched well. Wander Suero and Fernando Rodney have their good moments mixed with their bad. Roenis Elias threw a bullpen session Tuesday and could also throw a simulation game Wednesday. Which means Martinez has options.

Those choices allow him to rest Doolittle more or use him in a more creative capacity. And by Sunday, more arms should be in the bullpen when rosters expand Sept. 1. Which means a challenge arises the rest of the way for Martinez: With so many important games on the horizon, how does he balance Doolittle’s usage with the requirements of a September push? Part of the reason Doolittle felt fatigued is because of how hard he was pushed to help the Nationals hang on, then turn the season. Grinding through taxed his mind.

“I kind of needed a mental break,” Doolittle said. “That two-week stretch there was really rough. All through that process, I was looking for answers. I was trying to find things and make adjustments and none of them were working. So, when you’re spinning your wheels like that, it’s a really helpless feeling. You’re searching for answers and don’t really know how to fix it or where there fix is going to from. So, to press pause and get my body right helped me a lot mentally as well. I’m in a much, much better place mentally right now.”

Wander Suero pitched the eighth Tuesday during the Nationals’ 2-0 loss to Baltimore. Fernando Rodney pitched the ninth.

During the weekend, Doolittle should be back participating with that group. Hudson will move to the eighth inning, Strickland to the seventh (depending on which part of the order is up), Suero and Rodney to some mix prior and in between. Doolittle still holds his title of closer. But, the management of that role may have changed. 

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Nationals to ‘reassess’ Sean Doolittle’s role after another poor outing

Nationals to ‘reassess’ Sean Doolittle’s role after another poor outing

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle is four appearances into what has become a mess.

Finding a path to outs is problematic. He’s tried with a downtrodden fastball or still-to-be-refined off-speed pitches. Both failed him again Saturday when the Orioles hit back-to-back home runs against Doolittle in the eighth inning. The Nationals led 3-0 when he entered. They led 3-2 when he left after recording just one out, a strikeout of Chris Davis, in his latest-confidence sapping appearance.

Daniel Hudson replaced Doolittle. He allowed a three-run home run to Anthony Santander. That put Baltimore in front, 5-3, the score the Nationals would lose by. They are 4-7.

Doolittle’s prior struggles were a large part of Friday’s discussion between reporters and Davey Martinez before the weekend series began. The Nationals trimmed their roster Thursday from 30 to the mandatory 28, which meant reliever James Bourque was sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg and utilityman Emilio Bonifácio was designated for assignment. Martinez was asked Friday if they ever considered sending Doolittle to the alternate training site. The question felt a bit hyperbolic, but not outlandish, and was anchored in the idea it would give Doolittle a full restart to get right. Martinez said it was not considered.

“For me, he’s part of the core group here,” Martinez said. “We want him here. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. I know pitching coach Paul [Menhart] does as well. And we need him. When that little thing clicks, he’s going to be fine. We’ve got to keep running him out there. We’ve got to find spots to put him in the game. But I really believe it will click and he’ll be right back to where he used to be.”

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They are reassessing his path forward a day later.

“Like I said before, we need Doo,” Martinez said Saturday. “I know his velo is down. We’re going to have to reevaluate our situation with him. I’m going to talk to him here in a little while and go from there.

“I’ve said it before: here’s a guy that was a premier closer for us and did well. Has pitched in the highest-leverage situations in the game. I’m not going to give up on him. Going to work to figure it out. We’re going to work it out. If I have to pitch him in very low-, low-leverage situations, then we’ll do that. But we’ve got to figure something out for him. We need him. He’s a big part of this team.”

Doolittle’s spot Saturday was against the lower half of the Baltimore lineup. Tanner Rainey was used in the seventh inning to handle the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters in the Orioles lineup. He zipped through them.

Doolittle’s first pitch was 89 mph. His second was 90 mph. Pinch-hitter Pat Valaika sent his third pitch -- labeled a “splitter” but really just changeup -- out of the park. The speed gap between Doolittle’s opening fastball and his changeup was less than eight mph. The action on both is insufficient, in particular his wilted fastball, a pitch Doolittle’s success is anchored in.

A standard pitching line is that everything works off the fastball. Command that, the alternatives become all the more potent, the pitching that much easier. It’s a general truth.

In Doolittle’s case, it’s an emphatic rule. He’s thrown the pitch 88 percent of the time during his nine-plus seasons in the major leagues. If it doesn’t work, he doesn’t work.

The Nationals have tried to get him to use his legs more. He’s tried, too. To this point, the alterations from a pseudo-slide step to a full kick and delivery has not moved the radar gun. Doolittle’s reduced velocity was first attributed to what became a trend across the league. Speed of pitches was down and assumed to return. It has not for Doolittle. Not yet. He’s stumped as to why.

“It’s just been incredibly frustrating,” Doolittle said. “Physically, I feel really good. My knee feels strong. My arm feels good. Mechanically, I might not be exactly where I want to be, but....I feel, I feel, physically like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89, 90. It should have some life on it. I should be able to get through an inning and it just hasn’t come together.”

He rattled off the names of those pitching well from the bullpen, then lamented how his failures make their job more difficult and generally let the team down. Doolittle at times looked down, up and off to the side postgame when he explained his trials over a Zoom call. His conversation with Martinez was still to come. That's definite. When -- or how well -- he will pitch next is not.

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WATCH: Juan Soto goes opposite field for his first home run of 2020

WATCH: Juan Soto goes opposite field for his first home run of 2020

On August 8th, Nationals star Juan Soto hit his first home run of the 2020 season. In a normal year, that would be extremely concerning for the Washington brass. But 2020 is the least bit normal.

Soto missed the first eight games of Washington's season after testing positive for the novel coronavirus -- one he and many in the Nats organization think was a false-positive. The left fielder returned to Washington's lineup on Wednesday, and three days later, Soto notched his first long-ball of the 2020 season.

In his first at-bat in Saturday evening's contest against the Beltway foe Orioles, Soto stayed back on a 79 mph changeup from Orioles starter Tom Eshelman, a pitch that stayed over the plate just a bit too much.

The 21-year-old squared the barrel up and muscled the pitch 370 feet the opposite way, with the ball landing just barely over the left field wall about a free throw's length to the right of his family cardboard cutouts.

The home run was Soto's 57th of his career, tying Mickey Mantle for the eighth-most of any player before turning 22 years old. That long ball from the Nats' phenom puts him in quite the company.

Washington took a 1-0 lead on Soto's home run, a game the Nationals desperately need after dropping two straight following a three-game win streak.

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