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Does Sean Doolittle's fastball rise? That and much more with the Nats closer

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USA Today Sports

Does Sean Doolittle's fastball rise? That and much more with the Nats closer

Lots on Sean Doolittle’s plate at this point: He’s navigating the penetrating midwest winters of Chicago; he’s starting earnest preparations for the season; he’s even working around the house in an attempt to improve his first home.

The Nationals All-Star closer also took time to call The Racing Presidents podcast to discuss those things and much more.

Just a few days ago, two pitchers -- Roy Halladay and Mariano Rivera -- were among those inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Doolittle has a correlation to both. First, he used some of the same mental tactics Halladay drew from after being sent to the minors. Doolittle was in a different position while converting from a hitter to full-time pitcher before the start of his professional career. But, he drew on some of Halladay’s approach to get his mind right.

“One of the biggest challenges that gets presented whenever you have to deal with a setback of getting sent down or any sort of circumstance where you have to go back to the beginning, back to square one, do you have the humility to accept your circumstances?” Doolittle said.

Rivera relates to Doolittle because of his pitch selection. The first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame only threw fastballs -- almost exclusively throwing a cut fastball -- on his way to becoming the most dominant closer in history. Doolittle’s fastball is his top weapon. He throws it 88 percent of the time. Why? Early advice from Oakland Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane and former MLB pitcher Bob Welch convinced him to use his best pitch as often as possible. Also, his past as a hitter made him think about his approach as a pitcher.

And, there’s a weird thing about Doolittle’s fastball. It’s not 98 mph, everyone in the stadium knows it’s coming, yet it’s such a difficult pitch to handle. That’s in part because it appears from the hitter’s view to be rising.

“The way that it spins out of my hand with the backspin, what it really just does is it holds its plane a lot longer than most fastballs,” Doolittle said. “But hitters have been so conditioned to see the ball coming into the strike zone at a downward trajectory, to them, it looks like the ball rises.”

No need to limit a conversation with Doolittle to baseball. We wanted to check on two other crucial things in his life: handiwork around the house and Star Wars.

Doolittle is a first-time homeowner who is attempting to fix things himself. That has produced mixed results. No HGTV series is pending.

He is also a lifelong Star Wars addict who watched “The Last Jedi” roughly nine times. That’s not hyperbole. He has thoughts on characters, plots, offshoots and the future of the franchise. By thoughts, we mean extended, philosophical ideas.

You can hear all that below.

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

NEW YORK -- Dealing with tomorrow has often become the only palatable way for the Nationals to forget yesterday.

They lose in eye-gouging fashion, roll in the next day to reset, and, at least in New York, find a topper. That formula has them on a train home from what could have been a series for re-emergence, but instead placed them in a worse place than they started. Washington is 19-31 following a sweep in Flushing. It would have to go 71-41 (a .634 winning percentage) to reach 90 wins. If it’s not already, the season is on the verge of being over. Manager Davey Martinez disputed that idea.

“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now," Martinez said after Thursday’s 6-4 loss. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”

A slog-filled drive from midtown to Queens delivered the tired team back to its baseball quarters Thursday morning. Sean Doolittle changed then pulled his red hood up, sitting at his locker 10 hours after he stated he was “disgusted” with himself for Wednesday’s crash. Such a devastating night has been common for the 2019 Nationals. It was not for Doolittle. He hit a batter for the first time since May 29, 2018. He allowed four earned runs in an outing for the fifth time in 348 career appearances (1.4 percent of the time he pitches). In keeping with the season, the worst-possible outcome arrived at the worst-possible time, then another terrible one followed.

Martinez remained upbeat, sipping a morning drink concoction common in his native Puerto Rico. He rewatched Wednesday's game -- a masochist’s errand this season -- as he regularly does, went to sleep around 2 a.m., awoke at 7, arrived at Citi Field around 9:45. The leash on his future has been shortened greatly by the four failing days in New York.

The Nationals wandered out for stretch and light throwing in front of an oddball scene. Thursday was “Weather Day” at Citi Field with the Big Apple-famous Mr. G hosting in his Mets jersey. Mr. G  -- known to his friends as Irv Gikofsy, New York City’s most popular weatherman -- kicked up a “Let’s go Mets!” chant down the third base line while the Nationals relievers ran routes and caught a foam football to get loose in the same part of the park. The recently re-emerged Mrs. Met, who popped back up in 2013 after decades of dormancy, used her giant noggin to nod along.

The game was another compilation of missed opportunities, bullpen disasters and bad luck. Washington left eight runners on base through the first six innings alone. The Mets’ path to runs was aided by slop and basics. Carlos Gomez single in the fifth. He ran to steal second, Yan Gomes’ throw went into center field, Gomez went on to third base. A sacrifice fly scored him.

J.D. Davis singled in the sixth. Todd Frazier was hit by a pitch. Stephen Strasburg’s wild pitch moved them both over. Another sacrifice fly scored one, a Wilson Ramos infield single scored the other. The Mets led, 3-1.

The Nationals didn’t score with runners on first and third and one out in the first. They did not score after Juan Soto’s leadoff triple in the second inning. They did not score after a one-out double in the third. They did not score with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth. They did not score with a runner on second and one out in the fifth. This is not hyperbole for effect. It’s facts. Sigh-worthy ones.

The only effective offseason signings are Kurt Suzuki and Patrick Corbin. The others have not just resided below expectations, they have been among the worst in the league at their position.

Gomes, acquired in a trade, leads the league in passed balls. He’s committed three errors in his 29 starts. Coming into Thursday, he had a 65 OPS-plus (100 is average).

Brian Dozier started the afternoon with a 73 OPS-plus and -0.5 WAR. Those two numbers would be worse if not for a recent uptick both in the field and plate from him.

And, the most egregious failure of the offseason has been Trevor Rosenthal’s saga. Martinez was asked directly Wednesday if Rosenthal simply has the “yips”. He said they still believe Rosenthal’s problems are mechanics, not thoughts, despite him throwing baseballs to the backstop in central Pennsylvania. The luxury-tax averse Nationals are paying him $6 million to do so.

Finally, Thursday was enough for Martinez to shed his tranquility. After Howie Kendrick was ejected in the top of the eighth, Martinez ran to home plate to start an argument of his own. He half-circled home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, yelled, pointed and carried on in a manner that begged Dreckman to throw him out. He did. Martinez went from rankled to furious. He spiked his hat, kicked the dirt, and yelled some more. The event provided his third career ejection and looked to be among the final moves of a manager on the verge of returning to private life.

A strange thing followed: his team rallied for three runs to take a 4-3 lead. No matter. There’s no goodness Washington’s bullpen can’t undermine. Wander Suero gave up a three-run homer in the eighth to Gomez. New day, different reliever, same ear-bleeding outcome.

Which again made talking about tomorrow the only way to deal with the grotesqueness of today. Trouble is tomorrow may not matter anymore.

“Things are going to change,” Martinez said. “Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around.”

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An irate Davey Martinez ejected in 8th inning as Nats swept by Mets

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An irate Davey Martinez ejected in 8th inning as Nats swept by Mets

Perhaps Davey Martinez senses his job security is in serious jeopardy as the team continues to underperform and slip its way down the competitive NL East division. 

The second-year Nationals manager, who's gone 101-111 since accepting the job, reached a boiling point Thursday when he was ejected in the 8th for arguing a called strike three on a Howie Kendrick check swing. 

“I just didn’t think he [Kendrick] swung. And we just got into it. All I did was tell him to ask for help. That’s why the first base umpire’s there. And he didn’t like it. I did what I had to do.”

"Things are going to change. Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. there's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around," Martinez reiterated postgame, as he so often has this season. 

Martinez, typically mild-mannered in the dugout, tied Matt Williams on the all-time career ejections as a manager list with his third Thursday. 

First-year National and MLB veteran second baseman Brian Dozier stood behind his manager after the crushing loss. 

“Davey does a really, really good job of always defending his players. Whether that be on the field to an umpire, to you guys, in the media, in the clubhouse, wherever it is, he does a really good job of that.”

The Nationals' 6-4 loss to New York marked the team's fifth straight as it falls to 19-31 on the season. They return home Friday night for a four-game set at Nationals Park against the Miami Marlins. 

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