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Nationals’ Strengths No. 5: Sean Doolittle’s serenity

Nationals’ Strengths No. 5: Sean Doolittle’s serenity

With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we’re ranking the Nationals’ 10 biggest strengths that we’re looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Up next is the inner calmness that Sean Doolittle has mastered.

For Sean Doolittle, the secret to pitching in big moments game after game comes down to one thing: staying calm.

The Nationals’ closer will get amped up, sure. He’s been known to let out a scream after securing a save or wrestling out of a tight situation. But in the heat of the moment—when success means pushing his team to victory and failure means letting one slip away—that’s when Doolittle is at his calmest.

Closers have one of the most unique roles in all of sports. They’re tasked with sitting on the bench for seven-eighths of the game, warming up at a moment’s notice and coming in to finish things off with the score always close. Other than perhaps a runner or swimmer in the final leg of a relay race, no position in sports requires the kind of mental fortitude that a closer must have.

Some closers handle that with fierce competitiveness. That’s not Doolittle’s style. Last season, he put lavender oil on his glove to remind himself to stay calm on the mound. He listens to the Grateful Dead as part of his pregame routine to keep his mind from getting too caught up in the situations he’s thrust in.

“I listen to ‘Box of Rain’ and ‘Ramble on Rose’ before every game,” Doolittle said on the Beyond the Pond podcast in March. “I’ve done a lot of pitching work to ‘Ramble on Rose’ because the tempo of the song fits perfectly with the tempo of what I’m trying to do with my mechanics and my delivery.”

The results? Over the past two and a half seasons in D.C., Doolittle has compiled 75 saves to go with a 2.87 ERA and strikeout rate of 10.5 batters per nine innings. Only six other pitchers have met each of those thresholds since 2017. He’s been one of the best closers in baseball and a dependable option for a relief corps that’s struggled with consistency for years.

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Following an offseason in which they signed both Will Harris and Daniel Hudson, the Nationals are hoping that last part changes for the better. Washington is coming off a season in which its bullpen posted an NL-worst 5.68 ERA. The only team that finished with a mark worse resides across the Beltway, where the Orioles edged the Nationals with a 5.79 bullpen ERA on their way to losing 108 games.

That leaves plenty of room for improvement. With Doolittle anchoring the ninth and both Harris and Hudson taking care of set-up duties, the rest of the young arms in the Nationals’ bullpen can work in lower-leverage situations and find their footing as major-league relievers. It’s not a fool-proof plan by any means, but the Nationals are undoubtedly in a better position than they were a year ago with Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough as their set-up men.

As for Doolittle himself, the southpaw will benefit from a decreased workload that comes with having more talented arms around him. He was forced to the Injured List in mid-August last season due to fatigue. As a pitcher with a lengthy injury history, the added rest that’s come with the suspension of the season due to coronavirus should also only serve to benefit Doolittle when baseball does return.

If MLB does pick up some kind of abbreviated season, then the Nationals will have Doolittle and his relaxed mindset to rely on in the ninth inning. It’s a gift only few players have, and one of many reasons why Doolittle is among the best at one of the toughest positions in all of sports.

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Davey Martinez defends Nationals' grounds crew following tarp snafu

Davey Martinez defends Nationals' grounds crew following tarp snafu

Sunday's matchup between the Nationals and Orioles came to a halt in the sixth inning due to a brief rainstorm, but the game was delayed and eventually suspended after the grounds crew had multiple issues unraveling the tarp to cover the infield.

For much of the rainfall, the infield and pitcher's mound in Nationals Park were exposed. As the rain continued to fall, the dirt turned into slushy mud.

Despite the grounds crew's inability to properly cover the field, which ended up being the reason for the game's suspension, Nationals manager Davey Martinez refused to place blame on the crew.

"Feel bad for our grounds crew," Martinez said to reporters after the game was called off. "Personally, these guys, to me, are the best if not one of the best. Unfortunate that that happened."

RELATED: NATS-O'S WAS SUSPENDED, NOT CANCELED, DUE TO AN EXCEPTION IN MLB'S RULE BOOK

The whole situation was a perfect metaphor for 2020 as a whole, a year of chaos and unexpected twists and turns, mostly in a negative fashion.

While Sunday's game came to a finish prematurely, Martinez said all his team can do is keep moving forward and be ready to play the New York Mets on Monday at Citi Field.

"There’s going to be days when you don’t know what to expect. This is part of it," Martinez said. "So, we just got to keep moving on. At the end of the game, I told the guys, pack up, we’re going to New York. Get ready to play [Monday]. That’s all we can do."

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Nationals-Orioles game suspended due to an exception in MLB rule book

Nationals-Orioles game suspended due to an exception in MLB rule book

On Sunday, the Nationals and Orioles played into the top of the sixth inning before a rain delay forced both teams off the field. Washington’s grounds crew sprang into action but struggled for more than 15 minutes to get the tarp across the infield, causing the dirt to flood. But despite the crew’s best efforts to drain the field, umpires deemed it unplayable and suspended the rest of the game.

Under normal circumstances, the game would’ve been declared finished. Any contest that is called after 15 outs have been made when the visiting team took the lead in the previous inning or earlier is deemed an “official game” by the MLB hand book. If the rain delay comes before 15 outs are made, when the game is tied or in the same inning that the visiting team took the lead, it is suspended until a later date.

However, this game didn’t qualify to be suspended under those rules. The Orioles took the lead in the fifth and the Nationals, as the home team, had a chance to tie or take the lead but fell short. That the game went into the sixth before the rain began should’ve required the umpires to call it off, if not for one technicality: faulty equipment.

RELATED: HOW DO MLB'S MODIFIED RAIN DELAY RULES FOR THE 2020 SEASON WORK?

The tarp that the Nationals’ grounds crew attempted to use was tangled up in its roller, making it difficult for them to roll it out. Under rule 7.02 of the MLB hand book, any game that is called as a result of “light failure, malfunction of, or unintentional operator error in employing, a mechanical or field device or equipment under the control of the home Club” must be picked up at a later date.

This is a rule that has stood for years but is seldom used given how infrequent mechanical failures such as this one occur. MLB did introduce a 2020-only change to rain delay rules but it didn’t come into play Sunday. (Games called off before 15 outs are reached will be picked up right where they left off; in normal seasons, those games are wiped and restarted from the beginning.)

As a result, the Orioles and Nationals will finish out the game Aug. 14 at Camden Yards. Washington will still serve as the “home team” and play will resume with Baltimore leading 5-2 in the top of the sixth.

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