WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle is four appearances into what has become a mess.
Finding a path to outs is problematic. He’s tried with a downtrodden fastball or still-to-be-refined off-speed pitches. Both failed him again Saturday when the Orioles hit back-to-back home runs against Doolittle in the eighth inning. The Nationals led 3-0 when he entered. They led 3-2 when he left after recording just one out, a strikeout of Chris Davis, in his latest-confidence sapping appearance.
Daniel Hudson replaced Doolittle. He allowed a three-run home run to Anthony Santander. That put Baltimore in front, 5-3, the score the Nationals would lose by. They are 4-7.
Doolittle’s prior struggles were a large part of Friday’s discussion between reporters and Davey Martinez before the weekend series began. The Nationals trimmed their roster Thursday from 30 to the mandatory 28, which meant reliever James Bourque was sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg and utilityman Emilio Bonifácio was designated for assignment. Martinez was asked Friday if they ever considered sending Doolittle to the alternate training site. The question felt a bit hyperbolic, but not outlandish, and was anchored in the idea it would give Doolittle a full restart to get right. Martinez said it was not considered.
“For me, he’s part of the core group here,” Martinez said. “We want him here. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. I know pitching coach Paul [Menhart] does as well. And we need him. When that little thing clicks, he’s going to be fine. We’ve got to keep running him out there. We’ve got to find spots to put him in the game. But I really believe it will click and he’ll be right back to where he used to be.”
They are reassessing his path forward a day later.
“Like I said before, we need Doo,” Martinez said Saturday. “I know his velo is down. We’re going to have to reevaluate our situation with him. I’m going to talk to him here in a little while and go from there.
“I’ve said it before: here’s a guy that was a premier closer for us and did well. Has pitched in the highest-leverage situations in the game. I’m not going to give up on him. Going to work to figure it out. We’re going to work it out. If I have to pitch him in very low-, low-leverage situations, then we’ll do that. But we’ve got to figure something out for him. We need him. He’s a big part of this team.”
Doolittle’s spot Saturday was against the lower half of the Baltimore lineup. Tanner Rainey was used in the seventh inning to handle the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters in the Orioles lineup. He zipped through them.
Doolittle’s first pitch was 89 mph. His second was 90 mph. Pinch-hitter Pat Valaika sent his third pitch -- labeled a “splitter” but really just changeup -- out of the park. The speed gap between Doolittle’s opening fastball and his changeup was less than eight mph. The action on both is insufficient, in particular his wilted fastball, a pitch Doolittle’s success is anchored in.
A standard pitching line is that everything works off the fastball. Command that, the alternatives become all the more potent, the pitching that much easier. It’s a general truth.
In Doolittle’s case, it’s an emphatic rule. He’s thrown the pitch 88 percent of the time during his nine-plus seasons in the major leagues. If it doesn’t work, he doesn’t work.
The Nationals have tried to get him to use his legs more. He’s tried, too. To this point, the alterations from a pseudo-slide step to a full kick and delivery has not moved the radar gun. Doolittle’s reduced velocity was first attributed to what became a trend across the league. Speed of pitches was down and assumed to return. It has not for Doolittle. Not yet. He’s stumped as to why.
“It’s just been incredibly frustrating,” Doolittle said. “Physically, I feel really good. My knee feels strong. My arm feels good. Mechanically, I might not be exactly where I want to be, but....I feel, I feel, physically like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89, 90. It should have some life on it. I should be able to get through an inning and it just hasn’t come together.”
He rattled off the names of those pitching well from the bullpen, then lamented how his failures make their job more difficult and generally let the team down. Doolittle at times looked down, up and off to the side postgame when he explained his trials over a Zoom call. His conversation with Martinez was still to come. That's definite. When -- or how well -- he will pitch next is not.
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