Sean Doolittle has a right oblique injury. That’s known. How problematic it is and whether it ends his time in Washington is to be determined.
Doolittle faced the first batter of the ninth inning on Thursday night. Nick Markakis grounded out to the second baseman. As the ball bounced by, Doolittle whipped his head around to take a look at its path. Then he immediately bent over and called for the athletic trainer to come to the mound.
Oblique injuries are hugely problematic for baseball players, no matter their position. They typically take weeks to heal. With 17 days remaining in the regular season -- and the Nationals a crumbling 16-26 after Thursday’s soul-sapping 7-6 loss to Atlanta -- Doolittle’s time in the Nationals bullpen may have come to an abrupt end.
He is a free agent at the end of the season. Doolittle’s path to hitting the open market took a long time because of a team-friendly contract he signed in Oakland back in 2014. The Nationals picked up the final option year on the contract in the offseason. So, Doolittle will hit free agency just after his 34th birthday and following a personal season likely ended by injury just when it appeared to be heading in the right direction.
His last outing was his best of the season. Doolittle’s slowed fastball ticked up in speed. It also had more life. The results were the best any pitcher could hope for: 1-2-3 in an important situation.
All of which made Doolittle pleased. The start of his season made him appear to be a pitcher sapped by last season’s run to the World Series. His velocity was down so much he barely made it through an inning, and sometimes simply did not. Hard contact and homers defined his trips to the mound. Confusion during a hunt for answers followed. Being sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg was next.
But, each of his five outings since returning from Fredericksburg on Aug. 26 were progressively better. Doolittle did not allow a run in the 4 ⅓ innings he threw. He delivered 10 pitches, eight for strikes, and struck out two in his penultimate appearance. Thursday’s ground ball halted all that progress, possibly locking away 3 ½ memorable seasons in the District.
“I’m concerned,” Davey Martinez said. “That’s a tough one for any athlete. He’s going to get evaluated, I’m going to go see him. Hopefully, it’s not too bad. But, I saw him leaning over and I just started running out there. When you see somebody injured like that and kind of hunched over, it scares you. You don’t know what the problem is. I honestly first thought it was his knee. But I went out there and he said it was his oblique.”
Doolittle’s injury was an extra kick to the kneecap Thursday. The Nationals took an early 5-0 lead which they lost bit by bit thanks to two Freddie Freeman home runs, then a final homer from Dansby Swanson against Tanner Rainey in the eighth inning. They are 10 games under .500 with 18 to play. Their lone left-handed reliever is now likely out for the regular season. They blew a lead against a division opponent while other division opponents fought among themselves, allowing no ground to be gained. The season is sliding away and deciding to do so with extra cruelty in the process.