Stress reaction will sideline Doolittle several more weeks

The Nationals are going to be without their All-Star closer a while longer than they initially expected.

Sean Doolittle, who hoped the injury to his left foot that sidelined him for the first week before the All-Star break and then prevented him from pitching in the Midsummer Classic at Nationals Park, learned this weekend he’ll be out several more weeks after a follow-up MRI revealed a “stress reaction” in the bridge of the foot.

The injury, which is not as severe as a stress fracture, is akin to a bone bruise, and will require Doolittle to back off the rehab program he had been on over the last week in hopes of returning to the active roster in a matter of days.

“I really just have to let it calm down,” the left-hander said, “and basically treat it like a bruise, let it calm down and let it heal.”

Thumbnail image for Doolittle dealing greyjpgWhen Doolittle first landed on the 10-day disabled list a week and a half ago, the Nationals referred to the injury as “left toe inflammation.” The reliever described it as more like a pinched nerve between his first two toes, which caused pain as he tried to push off a mound to deliver a pitch. The expectation was that he’d return in short order, and indeed he sounded optimistic Friday after throwing a bullpen session and jogging.

But when his foot remained sore hours after the workout, Doolittle informed team doctors, who scheduled a follow-up MRI for Saturday morning. That test revealed the stress reaction, a more significant injury that - according to the pitcher - would only show up in an MRI taken multiple weeks after the original one.

“That’s why the initial MRI looked OK,” he said. “But on this one, they were able to see it pretty clearly. It’s a good thing we did that. It’s a good thing we got another one, because if it develops into a stress fracture, that’s a lot of time (required to heal). That’s something you really want to try to avoid. I guess that’s a silver lining: We were able to catch it before it became something serious.”

Silver lining or not, Doolittle now will be forced to miss more time than hoped, though he said he was told the timetable for recovery is measured in weeks, not months. In the meantime, the Nationals will attempt to compensate for his absence with the recently acquired Kelvin Herrera assuming closer duties and veterans Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler continuing to set him up.

“This is the reason we went out and got Herrera,” manager Davey Martinez said of the former Royals closer, who had 14 saves and a 1.05 ERA before last month’s trade. “With Herrera, Madson, Kintzler, we’ll be fine. We’re going to miss him, but we’ve got qualified guys down there that can close.”

Though Herrera has the pedigree, the right-hander has not pitched up to his career standards so far since the trade, with a 4.22 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP in his first 11 appearances for Washington.

The club will hope Herrera recaptures his form now that he’s back in a full-time closing role, and Doolittle will hope his bullpen mates can hold down the fort until he returns.

“In this point of the season, with everything that’s going on, to not be able to help is a really frustrating feeling,” he said. “I want to be there with my guys. I feel like I place a burden on the bullpen by not being with them. And the challenge is going to be kind of harnessing that energy and throwing it into whatever rehab I can do to be back as soon as possible.”

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