An annual lament has morphed into an expected pillar.
Will Harris is in. Daniel Hudson is coming back. Sean Doolittle is pumped.
Mike Rizzo remade the tenor around the Nationals bullpen in less than a week by signing the reliable Harris to a three-year deal and popping a surprise Monday when agreeing to a two-year deal with Daniel Hudson, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Washington.
“No way! Are you serious?!” Doolittle said when informed of the move.
Doolittle was on the phone recording an episode of the Nationals Talk podcast when told of the signing (editor's note: the moment is at the start of the podcast, which is below). His elation was immediate, unbridled and followed by questions for details. He also felt relief.
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“Oh my gosh,” Doolittle said. “That’s awesome. I got really close with him last year and he became one of my really good friends and we’ve kept in touch throughout the offseason. I’ve tried really hard not to pry too much into his free agency, but all the while I wanted him to know we wanted him back, I wanted him back and I think after authoring one of the most -- probably the most iconic image in Washington Nationals history getting the final out of the World Series -- that he should be back.
"Once we signed Will Harris, that was a weird thing for me and him because I thought that closed the door on him coming back and I was really excited to have Will Harris. I know how good he is, I’ve seen him a lot. But at the same time, I was like oh, man, that might mean Huddy might not be back. I’m stoked.”
Hudson’s return shoves the lower-leverage relievers into those spots. Wander Suero. Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland move toward earlier innings. Tanner Rainey, Hudson, Harris and Doolittle work late. Which prompts two questions: Who is the closer? And, does it matter?
Hudson is on record saying he “hates” closing games despite his success in the spot last season first when Doolittle was injured in September, then into the postseason. Harris has closed in the past, though it’s not his primary usage. Of the three, Doolittle is recognized as a closer first and foremost.
Davey Martinez remained adamant Doolittle was the team’s closer when the left-hander spent late August on the injured list to heal his knee and hunt down productive mechanics. Hudson became the stopgap closer at the time while he assembled the best season of his career. His ERA-plus zoomed to 322 in 24 games with Washington after being acquired in a deadline trade with Toronto, which signed Hudson after he was released by the Los Angeles Angels in March.
They worked together throughout October. Doolittle thinks age and experience -- both have been injured, played for multiple teams, are in their 30s, struggled then recovered -- allowed them to put aside concern about semantics.
“I think it worked so well between me and Huddy because you had two guys who had been through a lot of different stuff in their career,” Doolittle said. “I think we have a slightly different perspective than a lot of different relievers, so we were able to put labels on the back burner and just look at it as counting down the outs at the end of the game.
“And between the two of us, we were going to figure out a way to get to the last three, four, five, six outs, whatever it was. I think taking that mentality into the postseason really helped us because a lot of times there’s just so much inherent pressure with just carrying around the title of closer, so we tried to -- that’s how we tried to manage that by deflecting a lot of those things that come with being THE closer.”
The regular season is different. Thinking about the value of distinct relief roles, structured by inning instead of opponent, has shifted. However, many players and managers still prefer the structure of a setup man, a closer, and even a seventh-inning pitcher. Martinez is among them. Is Doolittle? Is he the closer?
“Going into the season, this year, I don’t know how it’s going to shake out,” Doolittle said. “That’s a pretty good back end there. I’m really excited to be in the mix with those guys. I think of myself as a closer, but I think after last season, the regular season going the way that it was, going the way it did for me personally, battling a lot of inconsistencies, and injuries at times, I’m not going into the season expecting any anything really. I’m not going in saying I’m the closer by any means. I want to compete for that job. I want to be in the mix for those outs at the end of games.
“But, you can’t go wrong with the three of us guys who have experience in high-leverage situations late in games. I don’t mean to sound like I’m side-stepping the question. For me, my focus is on correcting a lot of the problems I had during the regular season last year and picking up where I left off in the playoffs. I feel like I finally got myself right down the stretch in September and I feel like I was the best version of myself in the postseason and that’s where I want to pick up from to start the 2020 season. I feel like the roles, they’ll shake out, take care of themselves. I’m just really excited to be in the mix with those guys.”
That much is apparent.
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