When he made the decision in July to have a relatively new and somewhat unproven procedure on his injured left elbow, Sean Doolittle was confident he’d be ready to pitch again come spring training. But because he was going to be a free agent at season’s end, he figured he’d still be unemployed in late-January, hoping he could show enough progress in his rehab to convince some club to sign him shortly before camps opened.
Instead, Doolittle found himself last week packing his things for an early departure to West Palm Beach, Fla. The left-hander and his wife, Eireen Dolan, are about to report to camp two weeks before pitchers and catchers are required to arrive, having known since early-November he was returning to the Nationals on a minor league deal with a good shot to make the Opening Day roster.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Doolittle said in an interview for MASN’s Nationals Hot Stove Show. “I was mentally prepared to go through the offseason and then have to show teams I was ready for camp sometime in January or early-February. Maybe do like a showcase bullpen, or something like that. So it was best-case scenario when they reached out.”
Knowing he wouldn’t need to worry about where he was going to pitch in 2023, Doolittle instead spent all winter preparing himself to pitch again. After completing a five-month rehab program following the internal brace procedure he underwent in July, he began throwing off a bullpen mound just after Christmas. He has since thrown about 10 more, gradually increasing the volume and the intensity of his pitches.
All of which should leave Doolittle reporting for camp in shape no different than any other healthy pitcher on the roster.
“I’m not limited in any way right now,” he said. “I’ll be a full-go for camp.”
There are still several key hurdles for Doolittle to cross before he can claim a full return from his surgery. He needs to face live hitters again. He needs to throw at full velocity. And he needs his elbow to hold up to the rigors of those routines not just once, but repeatedly every other day.
But the signs to this point have all been encouraging, bringing a real sense of relief to a 36-year-old reliever who took a bit of a chance last summer.
Placed on the injured list after only five April appearances, Doolittle was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. His options at that point: season-ending Tommy John surgery, or an attempt to rest and rehab and return to pitch without going under the knife. He tried the rest and rehab route, and though everything seemed to be going well, a recurrence of the same elbow pain as he tried to ramp things up in July brought everything to a screeching halt.
Doctors, though, offered Doolittle a new option: Instead of Tommy John surgery, in which the torn ligament is replaced all together, requiring 12-to-18 months of rehab, he could have the internal brace procedure instead. That less-invasive surgery involved the placement of a collagen-soaked wrap around the UCL, strengthening it without fully replacing it, would cut the rehab time in half and give the veteran a chance to pitch by Opening Day.
Doolittle went for it, hoping the procedure could have the same positive effect on him it did for fellow lefty Rich Hill, who had it done in 2019 and has continued to pitch well into his 40s.
By his accounts, Doolittle’s rehab has gone exactly according to plan. By re-signing with the Nats right after the World Series, he was able to continue working with Seth Blee, the INOVA Sports Medicine physical therapist who in addition to working for the Nationals also was by Alex Smith’s side throughout the quarterback’s harrowing recovery from a broken leg in 2018.
Doolittle has no guarantees of making the Opening Day roster. His minor league contract only offers him the opportunity to pitch in big league camp this spring and prove he’s worthy of rejoining the bullpen he once anchored. If he does make the team, he’ll earn $1.5 million, plus the ability to earn more in incentives based on games pitched.
There’s still work to do, but Doolittle believes he’s put himself in the best possible position to complete his return.
“By re-upping so early in the offseason, I think it freed me up mentally to throw myself into the rehab process with a clear head,” he said. “So it was really a no-brainer. I’m really grateful. The organization has been so good to me and my wife, and I’m so grateful for another crack at it with the Nats. I’ve done everything, and I’m going to continue to do everything, to make the most of this one.”
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