Nationals

Nationals

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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