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Is Nationals closer Sean Doolittle being pushed too much early in the season?

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Is Nationals closer Sean Doolittle being pushed too much early in the season?

Sean Doolittle joked about his usage early last May. In late April, he pitched three consecutive days. May 3, he picked up a five-out save. Being pushed so early in the season opened his eyes behind his clear goggles. 

“I guess the training wheels are off,” Doolittle said then. 

The Nationals pushed Doolittle because early April was bad. A four-game, season-opening sweep of Cincinnati gave way to an 11-16 first month. Washington played at a 70-win pace the three-plus weeks after leaving Ohio feeling good about itself. Which forced new manager Davey Martinez to predominantly use only the relievers he had the utmost trust in. Doolittle was part of that band, and pitched 12 innings in 12 appearances across April. He pitched 12 more in May, seven in June, three in July and zero in August because he was injured. 

Doolittle has 10 appearances on his ledger this season. Seven games remain in April. Washington enters play Tuesday a game under .500, roiled by the league’s worst bullpen. He’ll have every chance to pass 12 appearances by the end of April, something he’s done once before. That was in 2016. Doolittle threw just 39 innings that year because shoulder inflammation did not allow him to pitch in July or August. 

Which begs multiple questions: Is his usage out of the ordinary as compared to the league? How foreign is it for him? And, is there any reasonable way to avoid it when managing the league’s worst bullpen? 

To the last question first. No. No is the answer. Martinez can’t trust anyone outside of Doolittle no matter the situation. Wander Suero and Kyle Barraclough are probably 2-3 in the Bullpen Trust Rankings, at the moment. Each allowed a home run Monday night in Colorado. Which is why Doolittle enters 5-0 games, adding another appearance to his total. 

Doolittle’s total pitches thrown is not outlandish as compared to general relievers in the rest of the league. Coming into Tuesday, Doolittle was 33rd in the National League among bullpen dwellers. The Mets have three of the top eight among NL relievers in pitches thrown. Their bullpen is 27th in ERA. In other words, New York is bludgeoning a specific trio early in the season just to achieve a bottom-end result. That’s a bad mix. 

But, Doolittle’s pitch count matters more specific to him and when related to closers. He’s thrown more than 1,000 pitches once -- six years ago when he made a career-high 70 appearances for Oakland. A 928-pitch season followed. Otherwise, he has never eclipsed 800 pitches in a year. He’s averaging 17.3 pitches per outing this season. If he makes 60 appearances -- 10 fewer than his career-best -- Doolittle will still set a career-high in pitches thrown, at this rate. 

Doolittle is also third among full-time National League closers in pitches thrown. 

Another way to look at common usage is simply checking on last season’s top-five saves leaders in the National League. Wade Davis pitched 65 ⅓ innings, Kenley Jansen 71 ⅔, Felipe Vazquez 70, Brad Boxberger 53 ⅓, Raisel Iglesias 72. The top-five closers worked less the season before. Only Corey Knebel cracked 70 innings. Three of the top five did not exceed 60. 

The most rapid -- and perhaps only -- in-house way to lighten Doolittle’s work is to get Trevor Rosenthal right. If Rosenthal is ever able to take just two appearances per month from Doolittle, a profound benefit for Doolittle will follow. This is a premise Washington was working under when it signed Rosenthal. It’s also a premise emphatically flushed by his early yips.

Piled together, a 70-plus appearance, 1,000-pitch season for Doolittle is extreme. Yet, that’s where he’s heading, if he can make it.

 

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Bryce Harper trolls Cubs fans after they call him overrated because of course he did

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Bryce Harper trolls Cubs fans after they call him overrated because of course he did

It's not just the City of Brotherly Love that heckles Bryce Harper from time to time, it's also one of the clubs he spurned during his offseason tour before settling on Philadelphia.

Prior to losing on a walk-off single to Cubs' star Javy Baez, Harper had a battle going on aside from the scheduled matchup, and that battle didn't involve any players on the opposing squads, but it did include the fans that fill their seats at Wrigley Field.

After the fans booed him all evening and labeled him overrated, the former Nats star chucked a fastball right over their heads and across the street.

Fortunately, the ball didn't break any nearby windows.

We hope. 

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Nationals bullpen finds a new way to lose a game

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Nationals bullpen finds a new way to lose a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-5, Tuesday to drop their record to 19-29. Here are five observations from the game…

1. They gave the lead back in the seventh, then again in the eighth before losing in the ninth. You know who “they” is.

A three-run homer run off Wander Suero provided the first shot against the Nationals’ league-worst bullpen. Suero threw a curveball to pinch-hitter J.D. Davis, who is hitting .429 against breaking pitches this year, and Davis hit it into the right-field stands. Not only is Davis potent against breaking pitches, but the curveball is also Suero’s worst pitch. He was beat on a curveball in the ninth inning April 14 to lose the lead. Afterward, in April, manager Davey Martinez said he was surprised by the pitch call. Yan Gomes was calling pitches that game, too. Yet, they called it Tuesday night, despite the dual emphatic counters to why that’s a good pitch in that situation.

“He got two big strikeouts with it,” Gomes said of the selection. “We were trying to expand the zone with it and just when you leave pitches up to good hitters, they're going to do some damage to it. I think [leaving pitches up] can beat anybody. We were trying to expand the zone, we left up just enough for him to hit it and J.D. did what he did. He's a good hitter and he made us pay for it.”

The Nationals rallied for two runs in the eighth to again take the lead back. Trea Turner doubled to drive in a run. Juan Soto followed with a double. Washington led, 5-4.

Matt Grace came in. He retired Robinson Cano in a lefty-lefty matchup. Hard-throwing Tanner Rainey entered to face Mets stud rookie Pete Alonso, who entered the game with 15 home runs. His 16th soared just inside the foul pole -- according to an on-field call then “inconclusive” crew chief replay review -- four pitches later. Tie game.

Both relievers failed in their execution. Suero didn’t want his pitch up. Rainey did. Neither hit the proper spot.

Rainey remained in the game in the bottom of the ninth. He walked two after picking up an out. He left. Kyle Barraclough entered. His first pitch was a broken-bat bloop toward Brian Dozier. He intentionally let it drop to try to trick the Mets into a double play. Instead, it produced an out at second.

Amed Rosario hit a one-hop grounder to shortstop. He beat the throw to first for a walk-off infield single. You read that right.

So, the line for second-guessing starts at Rainey’s initial entrance with one out in the eighth inning, when the Nationals held a 5-4 lead. Why didn’t Barraclough pitch there to hold the lead and set up Sean Doolittle for the ninth?

“I liked the matchup with Rainey, with the velocity and his slider,” Martinez said. “For me, the matchup was … and he got ahead. He just didn’t get the ball up.”

Rainey returned to the mound to start the ninth. Barraclough, who has allowed seven of eight inherited runners to score this season, could have started the inning. Instead, he came in with runners on base, then lost the game. It should be noted nothing was hit hard against Barraclough. However, the outcome was the outcome.

Also, should Turner have charged the grounder to try for a short hop against the fleet Rosario?

“Decision either stay back and catch it and make a hard throw or run and kind of make a do-or-die play,” Turner said. “I guess looking back at it, you try the other one since it didn't work out. But, felt like I gave myself a chance to make the play, complete the play and get out of the inning.”

And, for the first time, the weight of fighting back only to have the bullpen lose the game -- again -- began to show in the Nationals’ clubhouse postgame when Gomes was asked about the need to properly finish games and soon.

“I think you're nailing it but I think we don't need to, kind of a -- it's happening,” Gomes said. “I mean we can't put that aside. I think it's happening we need to figure out how to do it. I think it's just a matter of keep playing. Keep playing until the game's over and not wait for that moment to happen.

“I think mostly the seventh, eighth innings start happening or when those runs start coming in we, I mean you definitely see a drop. We were still tied and you kind of saw a drop in our...but it's kind of like, because it's happening a little bit. But I think it's one of those things man, because we do come out and battle and battle and battle. I think it kind of gets tiring to say we just need that one hit, just need to make it happen more than just wait for it to happen.”

2. Erick Fedde delivered about the best the Nationals could hope for: five innings, one run, four hits, one walk, one strikeout.

He threw 61 pitches, then was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the sixth.

Fedde last started April 23 for Harrisburg. After that, he joined the Nationals as a stop-gap reliever, which convinced them to turn him into a full-time reliever this season. He hopped into the rotation for injured Anibal Sanchez to start Tuesday.

The night was all about sinkers for Fedde. Thirty-one of his 61 pitches were sinkers.

Fedde is likely to make another start because the Nationals placed Jeremy Hellickson on the 10-day injured list Tuesday (more on that below). When Hellickson returns, they will have to decide who to keep in the struggling back end of the rotation.

“He looked really good,” Martinez said. “He threw groundballs, groundballs. If he keeps pitching like that, we’re going to be in good shape. We’ve got to build him back up, obviously. But he did really well.”

3. Though it’s a low bar, things are improving for Brian Dozier.

He hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh inning to provide the Nationals a temporary lead and chase New York starter Zack Wheeler. Dozier was 5-for-12 coming into the game before his homer.

Again, this is a low bar. But for a player hitting .208, any progress is of note.

4. Trevor Rosenthal threw an inning of relief Tuesday for Double-A Harrisburg. Rosenthal walked two, threw a wild pitch, gave up a run and of his 24 pitches, just 10 were strikes.

He was though to be nearing a return to the parent club, possibly by the end of the week. The question now is if the Nationals think he needs more time.

5. Hellickson was placed on the 10-day injured list Tuesday because of a right shoulder strain. Yet, he was in center field playing long toss in the middle of the afternoon.

Hellickson said he felt discomfort in his shoulder since spring training. That prompts two questions: Why not say something prior? And, why play long toss after being placed on the injured list because of an achy shoulder?

To the first question, why now:

“Just cause it hasn’t gotten better,” Hellickson said. “We’ve been treating it every day, it hasn’t gotten better. We’ll see what rest does.”

And?

“Just [a] shoulder strain. It feels good when I’m out there. It just doesn’t feel great in between starts. I’m not waking up too good. Like I said, it’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better. So I’m just going to rest it for a little bit.”

To the second question, why play long toss:

“That feels good,” Hellickson said. “It’s just taking a start off to give it some rest, and not that big workload on a start day. I can take one of those off. It’s just on and off. It feels good one day, not so good the next. So give it some rest and hopefully get back to 100 percent.”

Another question: Has this affected your pitching and contributed to the 6.23 ERA?

“I felt good when I was out there,” Hellickson said. “It maybe affected my command a little bit. But I felt fine. I felt fine when I was out there. I don’t think it affected too much.”

So, the discomfort has been around since spring, has not gotten better, but feels fine when he pitches and throws long-toss but feels bad in between starts, yet hasn’t influenced his outcomes.

Kyle McGowin is a possibility to replace Hellickson in the rotation while he is on the injured list.

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