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This is how the Nationals and Sean Doolittle got here, and this is where they go

This is how the Nationals and Sean Doolittle got here, and this is where they go

WASHINGTON -- The first taste of all this came in late April of last year. Sean Doolittle threw three games in a row for the first time in years, only two of which were save opportunities. 

“Guess the training wheels are off,” Doolittle joked then.

His blistering usage this season followed with another heavy April and May combination born of the team’s other faults. The club was sliding or injury-filled or both, playing tight games and acting desperate in the season’s early months in order to make the later ones matter. A turnaround was even more critical this season following last year’s stumble. Davey Martinez was brought to Washington with a mandate to reach the World Series. They didn’t even make the playoffs in year one.

Look at Doolittle’s year-over-year pattern: April and May of last year, 25 total appearances. April and May of this year, 23 total appearances. By the start of July in 2018, Doolittle was on the injured list. He made it until mid-August this season, leading the league in games finished, being used relentlessly by a manager who had no one to trust at the start, then didn’t turn to those he could once they arrived. Doolittle appeared in eight of the Nationals’ 14 games since the trade deadline passed, all while enduring a home run surge and talking publicly about fatigue.

So, why was he used so often?

“Doolittle's the closer,” Martinez said Sunday. “He's the closer of this team. We've said that before and this is based on conversations with Doo. If he's available, as we talked about, then he's going to pitch the ninth inning. He's always been in the game when he said he was available to pitch.” 

The conversation Sunday morning between Martinez and Doolittle was meant to figure out what’s next for the closer and team following Saturday’s harrowing appearance. Doolittle was pummeled that evening. His failing cost the team continuance of a win streak and a pertinent victory. He knew it. It stung.

So, the decision was to put him on the 10-day injured list because of right knee tendinitis. Martinez backed the news with a declaration: “Talked to him, talked to the medical staff. It came to a head when I talked to him that his right knee's bothering him. So, we want to get it right. So we put him on the IL. Hopefully, it won't take as long, he's back in 10 days and when he does come back, he's our closer. And I reiterated that to him. He's our closer, but we got to get him right.”

Doolittle found a mechanical tweak earlier in the season which made him his most potent. His body position was higher, his release point hidden longer and his drive down the mound maximized. Of late, his fatigue has undermined those priorities. Doolittle is rolling through the load period in his windup. His arm is trying to generate power his body typically would. The ball is exposed earlier. Simply, hitters can see a slower-moving ball sooner. 

While Doolittle rests and retools, Martinez will hunt for how to operate without him. Daniel Hudson (1.08 ERA, heavy usage since arriving) and Hunter Strickland (1.29 ERA) are the logical choices. Why they weren’t being used as such to save Doolittle appearances before is moot now. They’re in. He’s out.

Roenis Elias and Greg Holland are also part of the equation. Elias (hamstring) is heading toward a mound session, perhaps in the next few days. If he didn’t absent-mindedly swing Aug. 2, much could be different. He could handle the seventh, aligning Hudson and Strickland for later outs and saving Doolittle. Instead, he’s thrown ⅔ of an inning since being acquired July 31. 

Holland has thrown two scoreless innings for Harrisburg since being signed and stashed after his release by Arizona. The Nationals are confident they can again retool Holland the way they did last year in a striking turnaround which led to a 0.84 ERA in 24 appearances. If he’s league average at the end of the bullpen, it’s a boost.

Washington has a minimum of eight more games to decipher how the new alignment will be deployed. Max Scherzer’s “probable” return Thursday will force a move in the rotation. Erick Fedde or Joe Ross (most likely Fedde) could end up back in the bullpen or in the minors.

The Nationals are 5 ½ games out of first place in the National League East. They hold a 3 ½-game lead in the wild-card race. Only the juggernaut Dodgers have a better run differential following Sunday’s homer-laden win against Milwaukee. 

Which means there is room for a breath, a reset, a rebuild of their closer. The season is going to boil down to September. Without a top-tier Doolittle, it has a limited chance of finishing where they payroll and demands expect it to.

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Nationals' 2021 schedule again includes the AL East

Nationals' 2021 schedule again includes the AL East

WASHINGTON -- Despite the 2020 season wobbling toward a late start, Major League Baseball released the 2021 schedule on Thursday afternoon.

Without warning or fanfare -- MLB’s usual ineffective process of releasing the schedule -- the Nationals learned they will open 2021 at home on April 1 against the New York Mets.

All 30 teams are slated to play on Opening Day in 2021.

The Nationals will again face the American League East during interleague play. Oddly, Major League Baseball did not use the already existing full 2020 schedule, nor did it change the interleague matchups after alterations for this season. For instance, the Nationals could have played the American League West next season -- like they were originally scheduled to in 2020. Instead, they will be dealing with the AL East heavyweights for a second consecutive season.

RELATED: NATIONALS' 2020 SCHEDULE FILLED WITH ODDITIES

The Nationals first road trip will be to Los Angeles for a three-game weekend series against the Dodgers on April 9-11 and then on to St. Louis to face the Cardinals, April 12-14.

The Nationals will play the Yankees in New York on May 7-9. The Boston Red Sox visit Nationals Park Oct. 1-3 to close the regular season.

Per usual, most of September will be spent playing within the division. From Aug. 24 through Sept. 22, the Nationals will play 22 out of 28 games against National League East.

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Spelling error? Stephen Strasburg was nervous opening his World Series ring

Spelling error? Stephen Strasburg was nervous opening his World Series ring

It’s understandable that a player might feel an array of emotions when finally getting the chance to see their championship ring in person for the first time.

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg opened his Thursday and while he was feeling nervous, it wasn’t because of the long road Washington took to winning its first World Series.

“It was very special to see,” Strasburg said on a Zoom press conference Thursday. “I got a little nervous at first because on the outside of the box it came in, my last name was spelled wrong. Luckily, it was spelled correctly on the ring, so I was pretty happy about that.”

RELATED: WATCH AS NATIONALS PLAYERS FINALLY RECEIVE THEIR WORLD SERIES RINGS

The Nationals unveiled the design for their World Series rings May 24, one year to the day after they began climbing out of the depths of a 19-31 start. However, players decided against receiving them until they could all do it together.

“It’s cool to see in person but I think I’ll be with Davey [Martinez] when I can actually put that thing on,” Nationals starter Max Scherzer said after the design was unveiled. “I think all of us, when we’re all together, when we can have that moment together, that’s the final piece to our championship and that’ll be an emotional moment.”

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Strasburg was the only player made available to the media after the rings were distributed, but he emphasized that the moment lived up to expectations.

“It’s pretty special,” Strasburg said. “You just look at all the little things they put on the ring to commemorate some of the big moments of the season and it kind of takes you right back to that moment. And they did a great job on it...Can’t wait to get it home to show my kids.”

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