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Sean Doolittle, Nationals rethinking things after another rough outing

Sean Doolittle, Nationals rethinking things after another rough outing

WASHINGTON -- Jack White and his band, The Raconteurs, found their faces on the center field video board around 7:20 p.m. They waved sheepishly as the crowd murmured, somewhat confused by what they were looking at.

Finally, a graphic went up with their name and mild I-think-I-know-that-band clapping began. Their visit to Nationals Park was brief because they had to head a mile up the street to play an 8 p.m. concert at The Anthem.

Almost five hours later, right at midnight, Christian Yelich’s fly ball landed just above the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field. He zipped around the bases with little admiration for his 41st homer. Javy Guerra bent at the waist when looked toward the fence from the pitcher’s mound.

The Nationals trailed, 13-12, heading into the bottom of the 13th inning. Sitting behind home plate? White and The Raconteurs. They had returned for plenty of post-concert baseball because the Brewers and Nationals spent the night pulverizing each other in a 14-inning, 15-14 Milwaukee win. 

However, they missed the most important part because closer Sean Doolittle suffered another disastrous night. When he’s flat this season, he’s all the way down to ground level, incapable of recording almost any outs.

Saturday’s line was a garish: ⅓ of an inning, four hits, four earned runs, three home runs, depleted velocity, increased dejection. Saturday was Doolittle’s third outing this season where he allowed four runs. It was his second such monstrosity in just more than a week.

Now the team has to figure out what to do with him.

“I felt great [Friday],” Doolittle said. “That was the best I felt in the last several weeks. And then [Saturday] man, I just didn’t have anything. So, yeah, we’re going to have to figure something out. I’m going to have to figure something out because this team, they deserve better right now.”

Doolittle has allowed seven home runs since July 29. His fastball typically runs around 94 mph. Saturday, Ryan Braun hit a 90-mph fastball into the seats. Doolittle’s arm appeared sapped on Aug. 17 with his team hanging on to a wild-card spot and tracking first-place Atlanta.

He’s downtrodden as much as frustrated after changing his pregame routine, postgame routine and bullpen warmup. No alteration has re-energized his sagging left arm.

So, he and Davey Martinez will talk Sunday about what to do. Unlike earlier in the season, the Nationals have authentic options to handle the ninth inning. Daniel Hudson appears to be the top candidate if anyone is going to give Doolittle a night off or temporarily replace him if he has to go on the 10-day injured list. Hunter Strickland could also be used. Fernando Rodney is a fall-back plan, as well as a way to close the gap created by moving another reliever to the ninth.

“I’m not saying anything definitive, but I definitely want to have a conversation with Doo, and figure something out,” Martinez said. “What best for him, what’s best for the club and just make sure that he’s ready.”

Asked directly if Doolittle is healthy, Martinez said Doolittle told him pregame Saturday he was able to pitch. In the bullpen, Doolittle started to learn he was not.

After Christian Yelich’s second-pitch home run, Doolittle’s first instinct was to attribute the damage to Yelich’s greatness. That was until the video board showed his fastball traveled just 92 mph. Keston Hiura doubled. Mike Moustakas homered. Braun homered. Doolittle scratched his head.

“I just...I don’t know,” Doolittle said. “It just wasn’t coming out tonight. That part of the order, that team? There’s really nowhere to hide.”

He tried sliders as a salve, but his second pitch is more for blindsiding than problem-solving. Eventually, Martinez removed Doolittle from the mound once Hudson was ready. Doolittle conceded postgame his workload would have to change in some manner.

“I think so at this point,” Doolittle said. “I’m giving everything I got, but, I don’t really...I don’t know. It’s really, really tough. It’s frustrating. This time of year, with whole well we’ve been playing lately, with everything’s that at stake, everything this team can still accomplish, you want to be out there. You want to help the team. But, I haven’t been pulling my weight here these last couple weeks.”

Sunday, how his weight is distributed could change.

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

As demonstrators stood in the streets of D.C. on Monday to protest racial injustice by law enforcement across the country—most recently resulting in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowd in order for President Donald Trump to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged amid protests Sunday.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan voiced on Twitter their displeasure with the decision to use violence in order to break up the crowds.

Athletes and sports teams across the U.S. have chimed in to express their support for equal rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the Nationals had yet to release an official statement at the time this story was published, they did join the #BlackOutTuesday movement by making their profile pictures on both Twitter and Instagram black and posting blank photos.

Outfielder Juan Soto, second baseman Starlin Castro, starting pitcher Joe Ross and third baseman Carter Kieboom joined the #BlackOutTuesday movement on their Instagram accounts as well. First baseman Howie Kendrick reposted Tiger Woods’ statement on his Instagram story.

Ross also retweeted a tweet from The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill that ridiculed the NFL for making a statement in support of the protestors after the Colin Kaepernick kneeling saga resulted in the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s continued unemployment.

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What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

Bryce Harper told his wife, Kayla, he wanted to hear the Nationals’ offer. He figured he would return to Washington, the only place he played, and anchor himself there until gray started to creep into his famous follicles.

Then, he heard it.

It was lower than the original, chock full of deferred money, a lean on what had become a stagnant market for Harper’s services. The Nationals knew Harper would reject their initial offer to enter free agency. They knew he would reject their subsequent low-ball offer. They were only in for the brief optics of the idea. They were not steadfastly trying to retain Harper. He left for Philadelphia.

That’s reality. But, we’re here to play with alternative realities during “What if?” week. In this case, what if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

First, picture the press conference: Harper sits down in Nationals Park, every local and national outlet is there, he reiterates his love for the city. He talks about raising children while working for the Nationals. His dad threw him pitches in the park just that prior summer. He hopes to do the same with his kids one day.

He’ll never be a free agent again. Harper’s time in Washington started when he was 19 years old. It will end when he is twice that age. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner will speak of Harper in paternal terms. Mike Rizzo will, as well. Scott Boras will pontificate. The media swath following the team will receive its typical jolt from Harper’s presence.

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The Nationals now have the best outfield in baseball. And, it’s probably not close. They combine for 86 home runs and 13 WAR in 2019. Harper is engaged on defense, making them the best defensive outfield, too. Between his arm, Victor Robles’ arm and Juan Soto’s growth, few want to run on them.

And the lineup is devastating. Harper replaces Adam Eaton as the No. 2 hitter. Trea Turner still leads off, Anthony Rendon follows Harper, and Soto follows him. Instead of having the best 3-4 combination in baseball -- like they did with Rendon and Soto -- the Nationals have the best 2-3-4 mix, and, when Turner is healthy, possibly the best 1-4. On the days Howie Kendrick hits fifth, the OPS of each player looks like this: .850, .882, 1.010, .949, .966. They crush right-handed pitching.

Eaton is gone. The cost control in his team-option-laden contract is appealing, but his recent play and health concerns undermine his value. He fetches three prospects, one of which is a catcher, the other two low-level pitchers. Washington’s farm system desperately needs an influx of both.

The math problems begin the following year. Harper’s huge contract limits the Nationals’ flexibility. They paid him and Patrick Corbin. Now, Rendon is leaving and Stephen Strasburg has opted out. Ownership decides they can’t bring on another enormous contract. Both leave.

Their departure begins to stir animus toward Harper’s contract. He wanted all the money when it was due and not in deferrals. The organization capitulated. They will have to maneuver around the cost for the next decade. Max Scherzer coming off the books in two years will help. The competitive balance tax annually creeps upward. Soto and Robles severely out-perform their low-level contracts, providing some flexibility.

Harper is a salve for Rendon’s departure. Instead of Starlin Castro hitting third, it’s Soto because Davey Martinez decides stacking lefties doesn’t matter when it is these lefties. Castro hits fifth. The first baseman du jour hits cleanup. Fewer questions about the offense follow Washington into spring training 2020.

Kids keep coming to see Harper. His voice in the game grows as he ages. He hides less from the media, lets his guard down a bit more, while also measuring his words. Jayson Werth counsels him on the side. Ryan Zimmerman and Scherzer help him navigate in the clubhouse day-to-day. Once those two depart, Harper is the top voice for the organization. When things are bad, he needs to answer, absorb blame, motivate himself and his teammates as much as the latter can occur in baseball. He’s the franchise face, for better or worse, the next decade.

Does he have a 2019 World Series title to rest on? Perhaps. The offense and defense (were he to play defense with vigor like he did in Philadelphia and did not in 2018) would both be better. The pitching staff would be the same because ownership went over the CBT this one time to take a maximum swing. It’s the following year when things become tough. And the next decade in D.C. baseball would belong to him, no matter what.

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