WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It had been five days since Sean Doolittle last took the mound in a game, and the Nationals closer had spent much of those five days trying to figure out what went wrong during a five-run meltdown and how to correct it.
But as soon as he fired his first pitch tonight, a 91-mph strike, Doolittle knew things were going to be just fine.
“It’s not quite where I want it to be, but that was definite improvement over last time,” he said after tossing a scoreless ninth to cap off the Nationals’ 7-1 victory over the Cardinals. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the numbers yet. I just felt cleaner. ... I felt like I had my legs underneath me much better, and my mechanics are starting to sync up. I’m super-encouraged by that, especially after last outing.”
That last outing was a disaster for Doolittle, who not only gave up five runs to blow a ninth-inning lead but saw his fastball drop into the high 80s, prompting at least some raised eyebrows from those accustomed to watching him throw in the low to mid-90s.
Doolittle, though, watched some video and saw something he felt could be fixed. (Warning: Here’s his technical explanation: “I was sinking too far into my backside, so I was super spread out by the time my front foot landed and I couldn’t get the extension. I couldn’t get over my front side.”)
So the left-hander went out to the bullpen mound over the last few days and made the necessary tweaks. And that left him feeling confident enough to try to put it into practice in tonight’s game.
The results were positive. Though he allowed two singles (one on a changeup), he retired the other three batters he faced with little trouble. His fastball registered 91-93 mph, and he was able to use it effectively up in the zone.
“Sean he knows who he is,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I know he’s trying to throw more breaking pitches, but when push comes to shove he’s a guy that throws elevated fastballs. He knows that, and he did that today.”
Doolittle isn’t going to declare himself completely fixed just yet. But he was encouraged by the steps he took tonight. Steps he realized he needed to take after an admittedly ugly performance the last time he pitched.
“Are you willing to have some humility, and go ask some questions and look at some video and see where can I improve?” he said. “What are you doing? What am I not doing? It’s not always fun, because sometimes it means you take some lumps and you have to look in the mirror. But I enjoy the process of constantly trying to get better.”
Jeremy Hellickson hasn’t needed to make many major tweaks this spring, because things have gone swimmingly from day one. He wrapped up his Grapefruit League slate with five scoreless innings tonight, scattering four hits and three walks while striking out six.
In five starts this spring, Hellickson gave up a total of two earned runs over 19 innings. It was a welcome six weeks for the veteran right-hander, who after signing late a year ago had to rush his way into the Nationals’ April plans.
“He’s got a wind behind him,” Martinez said. “He was huffing and puffing first couple games we had him out there last year. This year he’s worked really hard this spring on his conditioning. He’s a good athlete. I told him, ‘I never seen you get hurt like you did last year, this freaky stuff (strained hamstring covering first base, sprained wrist covering the plate).’ He admitted not having those extra couple weeks of spring training hurt him. He’s in a good place right now.”
Hellickson does face a potentially awkward situation over the next week, though. His next turn to pitch would come either Tuesday or Wednesday, when the Nationals are back home but off in advance of opening day. His regular season debut won’t come until April 3 at the earliest, and possibly later if the team decides to pitch Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg on a regular, five-day schedule instead of giving them extra days off.
The Nationals haven’t finalized plans yet, but Hellickson may stay back in Florida and pitch against minor leaguers early next week before flying to D.C. in time to join the rest of the team on opening day.
“I’d like to get six innings in a real game,” he said, “whether it’s a minor league game or not.”
One other possibility: The Nationals could use Hellickson as an extra arm out of the bullpen for the season’s first week, pushing back his starting debut until they actually need a No. 5 starter.