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.
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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