Sean Doolittle thought it was a cramp, not that it was over.
He felt well when preparing in the bullpen, then also on the game mound. A muscle near his ribs clinched toward the end of his warmups in the middle of Nationals Park. So Doolittle took a deep breath as a test. Was it the same intercostal problem he had in 2014? Breathing was difficult then. But, no problem here. He kept going into what he expected to be another building-block relief appearance.
Three pitches later, the end came after a slider to Nick Markakis. Doolittle’s right oblique yanked and strained. He knew it immediately. Doubled over on the mound, Doolittle motioned for athletic trainer Paul Lessard. Davey Martinez ran to the mound. This would be it. At a minimum for 2020. And, it could well be over for Doolittle in Washington, just more than three years after he arrived nervous from Oakland. His future is unclear and his past may have been defined by that final slider.
“It’s not something I want to focus on right now in this process,” Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington about realizing his time in Washington could be done. “But, it’s been hard. It’s been really hard to block that out. Just to think that this season as a whole, and specifically the other night in the game, is how it might end is really frustrating. And I haven’t come to grips with that yet. But at the same time, I am incredibly grateful for the last four years that I’ve had here and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that rather than the uncertainty of the future. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to have landed here before the trade deadline in .”
The right oblique strain will prevent Doolittle from pitching again this season. He’s at home in D.C. with Eirann Dolan, his wife, whom he was apart from because of the dangers of COVID-19 as they relate to her ongoing respiratory problems. He will be a free agent in six weeks. Between now and next February, Doolittle will be searching for a new work home, his time in Washington seemingly done after flashes of dominance as a closer, a World Series title, then a dastardly two months while careening through pandemic baseball.
If he doesn’t find his way back -- the Nationals need left-handed bullpen help -- Doolittle will move on after an eventful stint. His social media presence grew in the social justice era. An affinity for Star Wars spawned a light-saber wielding bobblehead, as well as numerous nerdy takes. Fans latched onto him quickly. Sounds of “Doooo” accompanied his first home mound trip following the trade. Doolittle allowed three runs on three hits that night. He also struck out three. Afterward, he spoke in what would become a common tone -- reflective, self-deprecating, thoughtful -- when he promised not all his outings would be like that.
Departing from Oakland was hard. Doolittle spent 10 years with the organization. He switched from a first baseman to a reliever there. Six years with the A’s enabled him to meet everyone involved with baseball in Oakland. After Oakland’s assistant general manager and its manager informed Doolittle he was traded right before the deadline in 2017, he drove home distraught.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Doolittle said.
He arrived in Washington with teammate Ryan Madson. They, along with Brandon Kintzler, represented yet another midseason bullpen overhaul. Doolittle outlasted both and earned a World Series ring because of it.
In the past, that may have been enough. Shoulder injuries slowed him in Oakland. The grind is always the grind in a Major League Baseball season. Though he signed a modest long-term contract for five years and $10.5 million, Doolittle had plenty of money for his needs. So, if a title ever came around, it was the sunset that awaited, not another season of work.
“There was a time in my career, before I got traded over here, just dealing with so many injuries throughout my career, that I remember that I thought if I was ever on a team that won the World Series, I would be done,” Doolittle said. “I would retire and I would just kind of walk away and go on to the next chapter of my life. Maybe go back to college. I don’t know. The shutdown really put things into perspective. I never seriously considered that, but it reminded me how much I love baseball and how much I love the game and I want to continue on with it as long as it will let me.”
This year was little more than misery. His initial concerns about playing appeared validated when Major League Baseball's coronavirus testing lagged. He publicly chastised the league for its issues. Then, on the field, his problems contributed to the teamwide ones. Doolittle eventually ended up on the injured list because of right knee fatigue. It was also a get-right stint. The velocity on his fastball reached an ineffective point. It had to be fixed.
The oblique strain occurred in his sixth appearance after coming off the injured list. Each time back on the mound was an incremental improvement. More velocity, more spin rate, more outs. Then, sudden derailment and being hurled into the unknown.
Doolittle’s first trip to free agency comes when he will be 34 years old. The winter market is expected to lack free-flowing cash following a year of revenue loss. Teams will use his age, injury history and 2020 results against any prospective salary number. In the interim, Doolittle will head West to workout, searching for the next steps he expected to take in September while still a member of the Nationals.
“Knowing the way that my brain works, the best thing for me is to focus on getting my body right,” Doolittle said. “I think as soon as you start going through all the possible scenarios in your head or trying to think about where you want to end up, your brain can just kind of go crazy. My goal has been to get healthy and use the things that I’ve learned over the last few weeks when I really righted the ship. Use those things to continue throwing and probably start getting off the mound sooner to show teams I’m ready to go and I was able to build on those changes I made. Get to a point where it’s so good, it kind of forces their hand and they can’t say no.”
And, if the Nationals are interested?
“I don’t want to get my hopes up.”