Doolittle hopes elbow sprain doesn't sideline him for long

Sean Doolittle first felt something in his elbow during the seventh inning Sunday in Pittsburgh. It was sore, but nothing he hadn’t dealt with before. Then he warmed up Tuesday afternoon in the bullpen at Nationals Park, and it was worse. Still, he thought he could deal with it, so he pitched the top of the sixth in relief of Josiah Gray, retiring two of three batters faced but notably with his fastball velocity down a couple ticks.

By the time he returned to the dugout following that nine-pitch appearance, Doolittle realized he needed to speak up. He told the Nationals medical staff, which ordered an MRI. He left the team prior to the nightcap of the doubleheader against the Diamondbacks, and by night’s end the results were in: He has a sprained elbow ligament and has been placed on the 10-day injured list.

What exactly that means isn’t fully known yet. Doolittle said the MRI results are being sent to other doctors for further examination. He admits a ligament sprain can in some cases require major surgery. But that’s not part of the immediate plan for him. He’ll first attempt to rehab the injury and hope he can return to pitch in relatively short order.

“We don’t have a timetable. I know that sounds like I’m talking around it and talking in generalities, but we’ve got to let it tell us what’s going on,” the left-hander said. “So we’re going to throw ourselves into that process right now, starting today. I actually started last night. By the end of that 10 days, we’ll start throwing again, see where we’re at and go from there.”

Even if this proves to be a best-case scenario and Doolittle is able to resume throwing with no issues in the next couple weeks, today’s news is a significant blow to the Nationals and to the 35-year-old reliever, who five outings into his return to D.C. looked to be enjoying a career resurgence.

Doolittle retired the first 15 batters he faced this season, with his fastball averaging 94 mph and new confidence in his breaking ball he never had during his previous time with the Nats.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it last night. Flew too close to the sun, man,” he said with a laugh and a sigh. “Finally develops a breaking ball and ends up on the IL. It had been a long con. I’d been setting guys up for 10 years without a breaking ball, and I start throwing a breaking ball now, and look where it got me.”

Doolittle immediately clarified he does not believe the extra breaking balls he’s been throwing caused the injury – “It’s not that kind of torque, and the MRI is not consistent (with) that” – but he and the team are nonetheless frustrated by this unexpected development only two weeks into a season that was starting to look so promising.

“I talked to him last night for a while, and just because of the history that we have together, it was tough,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I told him: ‘Hey, we’ll figure it out. You’re strong, you have the will to get through this. … Just hang in there and rehab and get ready, and hopefully we’ll forget about this in a couple weeks and we’ll move on.’ ”

With no other left-handers in their bullpen, the Nationals decided to add two before tonight’s game. They called up Sam Clay and Francisco Pérez from Triple-A Rochester. (Pérez technically had to be optioned back to Rochester after serving as the 29th player for Tuesday’s doubleheader before he could be recalled.)

The Nats also optioned Donovan Casey back to Triple-A before the outfielder ever had a chance to make his major league debut five days after he was promoted to fill the spot that opened up when Dee Strange-Gordon was placed on the COVID-19 IL. That move leaves the team with an 11-man bullpen and only three bench players.

“If you look at it, we haven’t really used our bench much,” Martinez said. “We felt like we needed another pitcher or two. We got two left-handed pitchers. I’m not going to say they’re going to take Doolittle’s spot, because he was throwing the ball well. But we definitely need two left-handed pitchers in our bullpen.”

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