Sean Doolittle

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Sean Doolittle believes 'this has the chance to be the best year of any of our careers'

Sean Doolittle believes 'this has the chance to be the best year of any of our careers'

Scroll down to listen to Todd Dybas' full interview with Nationals reliever, Sean Doolittle, on the Racing Presidents podcast.

To call the Nationals 2019 season 'interesting' would be an extreme understatement. The team started slowly, sporting a 19-31 record at one point - GM Davey Martinez' job was being called for, Anthony Rendon was the hot name in trade rumors and there wasn't a ton of hope for a postseason run. But the Nationals got back on track and are now playing in the Wild Card game on Tuesday.

"What a wild ride," Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas in the latest episode of the Racing Presidents podcast. "It's probably been the most challenging year of my career, and we're going to the playoffs so it still has the chance to be the best year of any of our careers."  

The Nats clinched home-field advantage in the NL wild-card game after their seventh straight victory Saturday against the Cleveland Indians and the postgame celebration after clinching the wild-card spot was epic.

"That champagne celebration the other night was different from any of the other celebrations I've been lucky enough to be a part of," Doolittle said. "The group that we have recognizes how difficult it is to make the playoffs at all, let alone coming from where we were in May."

The Nationals are 72-38 since May 23rd, the best record in the NL, and will take on the Milwaukee Brewers Tuesday at Nationals Park. 

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Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Sean Doolittle’s six September appearances have produced a 1.80 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .063 against him. Yet, something’s not right.

The eye test suggests it when outfielders drift deep toward the wall to catch fly balls. Sounds suggest it, too, when squared-up pitches come off the opponent’s bat. His ERA and batting average against, however, do not, and if they are not telling an outright lie, they are at least delivering a modest fib.

Doolittle’s time away from the team was supposed to rejuvenate his arm and brain. His velocity dipped, his ERA spiked and he couldn’t find a fix for what was happening. Doolittle was open -- as always -- with the media when saying repeatedly fatigue had become a factor in his season. Despite a truncated and altered exercise program in between appearances, he remained tired. 

Earlier in the season, when Doolittle’s fastball still had its standard zip, he did run into a temporary lull as part of the late-May debacle in Flushing. He looked for answers in the video from April and May of 2018. What he promptly saw was a more upright version of himself. Doolittle realized he was “top-heavy” because his shoulders curled and his momentum went toward first base instead of home plate. Such movement causes both the deception from and speed of his fastball to dwindle.

The toe-tap part of his delivery has lived its own life this season. Controversy and irritation were launched when Chicago manager Joe Maddon suggested the move was illegal. Doolittle mocked him during his protest, then stopped using it against the Cubs in the inning just to prove a point. He later shelved it before bringing it back in September when he returned from the injured list (right knee tendinitis).

Also part of his return was Davey Martinez’s repeated stance Doolittle needs to operate as the team’s closer for it to be at full strength. Doolittle is yet to be used in such a demanding role in September. The reason may be his underlying numbers, the ones which tell a story opposite his front-facing ones.

Doolittle’s average fastball release speed has been on the downswing since June when it peaked this season at 94.2 mph. July followed at 93.6 mph. August matched July, however, Doolittle was pummeled during the month, leading to his injured list stint and trek for answers. His average release speed is 92.76 mph since he returned -- its lowest point since last September’s 92.92 mph and the lowest since he joined the Nationals following a July 16, 2017 trade. He has spent the entire season below an average of 95 mph for the first time since 2015. He started that season on the injured list because of a shoulder injury and threw just 13 ⅔ innings -- almost all from late August to September.

Another velocity average is also of note since his September return: average exit velocity. Doolittle has allowed just a hit in five innings since coming back. But, much of the contact against him has been hard. The first batter Doolittle faced in September, Martin Prado, flew out to the warning track. In his Sept. 15 appearance, three balls in play averaged 98.9 mph. 

Another way to explain what is currently happening against Doolittle is through swings and misses. In April, when he was fresh, 16 percent of Doolittle’s pitches resulted in swings and misses. In September, 9.8 percent of Doolittle’s pitches have produced swings and misses. In April, none of his 12 appearances included an outing with zero swings and misses. It has happened three times in six September appearances.

Also pivoting is the view of Doolittle’s future in Washington. It has moved from a slam dunk to him working so much free agency was possible, to slightly clouded. The team holds a $6.5 million option on Doolittle this offseason. His early performance made the option’s outcome obvious. The end of the year has caused it to be rethought. Did the Nationals push their closer so hard he’s worn out to the point of not returning?

For now, Doolittle is focused on finding a way to get outs during the final week-plus. After that, the postseason could be next. Then, ultimately, the offseason decision-making will arrive and the organization needs to decide if an extended winter break will return their closer to who he was and they need him to be.

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Sean Doolittle returns to Nationals, but not yet as the closer

Sean Doolittle returns to Nationals, but not yet as the closer

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle was clobbered by traffic on his way to Frederick on Friday night. Not even a big-league salary can alleviate the perpetual stop-and-go populating District roadways, especially when departing for a holiday weekend. His late Friday trip back after throwing 13 pitches for the Single-A Potomac Nationals was at least swift. It put him in the clubhouse before the Nationals’ walk-off win ended.

Davey Martinez was surprised Doolittle was back so fast after throwing the sixth inning in a rehabilitation appearance. Doolittle’s arrival allowed closer and manager to sit down and assess. They had to decide what’s next for a reliever who went on the injured list with a sore knee, fatigued arm and questions about how to fix his ailments.

Doolittle went on the injured list Aug. 18. Martinez was adamant during Doolittle’s two weeks away he would be the closer upon his return. He was activated Sunday, then explained he will, in fact, not be the closer. Not yet.

“I feel so much better,” Doolittle said. “I feel like I was able to execute and I think the velo will come back. For now, probably stuff-wise, I'm not ready to be at the back end of a game. But I still think I can help the team. Keep guys like [Daniel Hudson] and [Hunter Strickland] and [Fernando Rodney] -- I can keep those guys fresh. I can help get them the ball. I can matchup against lefties. With an eye on hopefully getting back into one of those roles in the back end of a game at some point here in the next couple weeks.”

Martinez accepted the concept. He also continued to push the idea of Doolittle being the team’s closer. For now, he will be provided chances to matchup with left-handers in the seventh inning, for example. Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Fernando Rodney will work the late innings.

“We talked at length about him coming back and where he's at and we both felt that the best thing for him right now is for him to try to help us out in any way he can, which will be in lower leverage,” Martinez said. “ But I told him, I said in order for us to be super-effective we need you to be that guy again.”

Doolittle’s fade to a 4.33 ERA coincided with high usage which eventually delivered an unraveling in August. His 12.86 ERA across seven innings was a byproduct of five home runs allowed in the period. His dynamic fastball was being shown to hitters earlier because of mechanical flaws. Its zip was also absent once it reached the plate.The combination sent him to the injured list, providing a chance for other relievers to handle the ninth inning.

Martinez pushed back against the next few weeks being an “audition” for the closer’s role. He instead said it will be matchup-oriented. Martinez has also shown a preference to have settled roles in the bullpen, defining the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning relievers as just that. 

He hopes -- and expects -- Doolittle’s velocity and confidence to rise across the next two or three outings. Those opportunities will come against a crucial portion of the schedule. Waning New York arrives Monday for a three-game series. Then, it’s off to Atlanta for four games. 

“We'll get there. Take baby steps, you're healthy, just build you back up and once we feel you're there, but that'll come and I need him to believe that that will happen.”

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