Doolittle on rehab of knee and simplified mechanics

Left-hander Sean Doolittle is back with the Nationals and is eligible to pitch tonight. His last appearance was Aug. 10. He was placed on the injured list Aug. 11 with right knee fatigue. Manager Davey Martinez said the club wanted Doolittle to rehab his sore knee and build some strength in his lower half in his two weeks at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg.

"Just go down there and hone in on his mechanics," Martinez said during his pregame Zoom video call Saturday. "I think that's why his knee was bothering him because he was trying to do too many things. He is back here now and he is doing well. Down there, he was throwing 89-90 mph. Hopefully, he gets a little better, but he was throwing strikes, which was good. His mechanics looked good, so he is here, he's going to help us. If we need him today, he will pitch today, but he's a veteran guy that understands how to pitch. He's pitched in high-leverage situations. He was our closer. We need him. I told you that from the get-go."

Doolittle said he went to work to build that strength back in his right knee and simplify his mechanics while in Fredericksburg.

Doolittle-Fist-Pump-White-sidebar.jpg"I was just trying to get back to being in a place where I felt like I could trust myself again," Doolittle said. "Came out of the quarantine physically (and) I was feeling good, but my mechanics, my delivery was just really, really out of sync. Through the last couple of weeks of summer camp and the first couple of weeks of the season, I was really trying a lot of different things to get it to sync up. I was doing a lot of extra throwing on side in the bullpen before the game started. I think that extra throwing just kind of took a toll on my body, on my knee, and I started feeling it."

To find out how he looked and felt when he was clicking, Doolittle studied video from two seasons ago.

"It was a good idea to press pause and go down there and really just focus on getting back to where I've been the last few years," Doolittle said. "Watching a lot of stuff from 2018, 2017, really focusing on the lower half. I think a lot of my issues and the ineffectiveness really stemmed from trying to do too much and not trusting myself. When you feel out of sync like that, the tendency is to want to do more, to try harder, to try to throw harder. But for me, I've always been effective because my delivery it was fluid and it allowed that deceptiveness to really increase the effectiveness of my pitches."

Nationals pitching coordinator Brad Holman worked with Doolittle in an attempt to take the "fluid" feeling he felt in his side sessions into live pitcher-versus-batter matchups, which is something he wasn't able to do his first week in Fredericksburg.

"I don't know when this happened, but I did face hitters last Tuesday," Doolittle said. "I had thrown a side like a day or two before and I was finally able to take what I had done in the side into the live situation with the hitters and get results from it and really see some good results. So that was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. This past week and a half, things have really started to fall into place. I feel a lot better."

But without an effective four-seam fastball, can Doolittle be effective with a fastball that is hitting only 89-90 mph when he is used to being just a two-pitch pitcher?

Martinez thinks so, but it may have more to do with Doolittle's pitch location and how effective his slider can be when his fastball is not hitting the mid-90s.

"I think now he is understanding that he can't just go up there and throw fastballs up at the top of the zone every pitch," Martinez said. "He's got to mix in his pitches. He's got to actually pitch, in on hitters, away on hitters, down, more with location. He worked on that while he was down there. He worked on his slider while he was down there. Hopefully, things work out for him up here and we get the Sean Doolittle that just get us outs, three outs in an inning. That's what we are looking for."

Doolittle is known for his rising four-seam fastball, but he also throws a slider and a changeup. Prior to the injury, Doolittle had thrown those secondary pitches only a combined 16 times this season, according to

But with his fastball around 89-90 mph, will Doolittle have to rely on his seldom-used slider or changeup more than he was accustomed to in the past in order to get out of innings?

"Definitely, maybe pitching a little bit more," Doolittle said. "Maybe going to some of that secondary stuff in some different counts than I normally do just to try to see if I can get the fastball to play up. For me, the biggest key is just going to be trusting it, trusting my body. I've had success in my career when my velo has been in the low-90s mph because I still can get that deceptiveness.

"There's still that life on the fastball - even if the radar gun says 91-92 mph, it still has that life. My mechanics are still allowing me to hide the ball from the hitter (so) they don't pick it up very well. I might not get the high swing and miss percentages that I do when I'm throwing harder, but I am still missing barrels and I'm getting a lot of soft fly balls and weak contact."

Doolittle admitted that not being able to throw his patented four-seam fastball in the mid-90s has taken its toll on him and his game. He got scared.

"I was really hung up on the velocity for a long time and it was really frustrating looking up at the scoreboard seeing 87-88 mph," Doolittle said. "I kind of panicked a little bit. I started overcorrecting. I started trying to throw so hard and do these different things with my body to try to create more velocity. I should have been trying to simplify things and focusing on the parts of my delivery that allow me to hide the ball and get that deception. So that's going to be just as important as anything else right now."

Doolittle said throughout this rehab he has had conversations with Martinez, pitching coach Paul Menhart and general manager Mike Rizzo. During those talks, he felt the organization has been nothing but supportive, focusing the priority on how to get him back to where he feels good about his game again.

"I have had several conversations with Davey, really emotional conversations, that meant everything to me," Doolittle said. "It is a privilege to play for a manager that cares about his guys like that. Not just how they are performing on the field, but who they are as people. That kind of support means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to other guys as well."

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