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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle. 

Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1. 

This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.

Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.

Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.

There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.

That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.

It also didn’t work. 

So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.

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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

The Nationals bullpen got a little thinner on Sunday when closer Sean Doolittle was placed on the Injured List with right knee tendinitis.

On Tuesday, the unit almost had another pitcher endure an IL-needing injury, as recently-acquired relief pitcher Hunter Strickland nearly injured himself in a weight room accident in Pittsburgh just hours prior to the Nationals matchup with the Pirates.

Strickland had a bar strike the right side of his face, according to manager Dave Martinez, the Washington Post reported. When seen walking in the clubhouse, the reliever had a stripped band-aid on his nose to couple with a very red face.

He underwent X-rays at PNC Park, and they confirmed that Strickland suffered a broken nose. Strickland confirmed the news via his Twitter account.

Just an hour later, Strickland was playing catch with teammates, and later signing autographs for fans. He is still available to pitch tonight, according to Mark Zuckerman.

For a unit that has had their troubles on the field in 2019, Strickland has been a much-needed addition. He's been close to lights out in seven innings of work, allowing just one run on four hits to go with five strikeouts.

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