Doolittle taking it slow, may not be ready for Opening Day

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Sean Doolittle reported for spring training at full strength, and he joined his Nationals teammates as a full participant through the first week-plus of camp. He started thinking about making the Opening Day roster, completing his recovery from surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament in near-record time.

That’s when the team’s medical staff stepped in and questioned if the veteran left-hander should be pushing himself to that extent. And after some consultation, they came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth it.

That’s why Doolittle has been ramped down for the moment. He’s not throwing a ball this week, focusing instead on strengthening exercises. He doesn’t know exactly when he’ll start ramping up again, but he insists none of this was precipitated by any kind of setback.

“Nothing specifically happened,” he said. “I think when we started to look at what it was going to take to ramp up, and where I was at, I was ahead of schedule probably by almost a month. I did have some days when I was a little more sore than I had been throwing in the offseason. Nothing bad, but we started thinking about it. We’re so far ahead, let’s slow it down a little bit.”

The upshot of all that: Doolittle probably won’t be ready for Opening Day, a goal he initially set for himself when he underwent an internal brace procedure to repair his torn elbow ligament last summer. In the end, hitting that particular milestone wasn’t as important as making sure his arm is ready to handle the rigors of daily usage that comes during a long season.

“Obviously making the Opening Day roster was a goal. But the biggest goal is getting back healthy, and you can’t put a timeline on that at this point,” he said. “They were saying I was almost the first to come back from a full UCL ahead of schedule. Well, let’s be smart about it. It’s not a race.”

Manager Davey Martinez referred to Doolittle this morning as “still in that rehab mode,” suggesting he no longer was in the same category as other healthy pitchers in camp.

“I’m not going to push him,” Martinez said. “We got this far, and he was all excited, but I wanted to slow things down with him, talk to the trainers and keep building up his strength. When he’s ready, we want him to be 100 percent ready. We need left-handed pitchers in our bullpen. When he’s healthy, he’ll be that guy.”

A free agent at season’s end, Doolittle signed a minor league deal in November with an invitation to big league camp. For him to make the club out of spring training, he would need to be added to the 40-man roster, with someone else dropped to clear a spot for him.

If he’s still rehabbing at the end of the spring, the Nationals don’t need to do anything procedurally with him. When he’s ready to pitch, he could do so for Triple-A Rochester, then be called up to the majors at some point, with a player then needing to be moved off the 40-man roster for him.

Doolittle’s trying not to think too much about those matters right now.

“Let’s be smart about this. We’ve got time,” he said. “Take another week or so to drive some strength through it and make sure everything is activated and firing right. I feel really good. I feel strong. I’m annoying the hell out of those guys in (the trainer’s room), because I want to be back out there with the guys. But somebody needs to be the adult in the room.”

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