Rehabbing Doolittle joining bullpen in Wilmington

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ten months removed from elbow surgery, Sean Doolittle will begin pitching in competitive games again. For now, that will still be at the minor league level.

Doolittle is scheduled to join the bullpen at High-A Wilmington and make his season debut Saturday, Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. It will be the left-hander’s first actual game appearance since April 19, 2022, when he suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in a win over the Diamondbacks.

Doolittle spent the next several months attempting to return without surgery, hoping to make it back for the season’s second half. But when the elbow pain returned during bullpen sessions, he opted to go under the knife.

Rather than have the more invasive Tommy John surgery, which would’ve knocked him out for 12 to 18 months, Doolittle decided to go with an internal brace procedure, a relatively new option for pitchers in which the damaged ligament is wrapped and strengthened instead of replaced altogether.

Doolittle had that surgery done in July, and at the time hoped it would allow him to be ready for the start of the 2023 season. But his timeline was slowed during spring training, and the Nationals shut him down and had him start the rehab process all over again in late March.

Doolittle has been in West Palm Beach, Fla., ever since, building up his arm and pitching in extended spring training games. This week, the 36-year-old finally crossed the final hurdle – pitching back-to-back days – to convince the organization he was ready to join a minor league affiliate.

“(Velocity) was down a little the second time through, but we kind of figured as much,” said Martinez, who previously revealed Doolittle’s fastball was registering anywhere from 88-92 mph. “He’ll go out there again tomorrow.”

Because he was re-signed over the winter to a minor league contract, Doolittle was never formally placed on the injured list. That also means the traditional maximum length for players on a rehab assignment – 30 days for pitchers, 20 days for position players – doesn’t apply in his case.

“Right now, we’ll just continue to let him build,” Martinez said. “He’s going to have to pitch seven or eight times before we figure out what the next step is for him. And hopefully without any issues.”

If Doolittle makes it all the way back – and that’s still a question – he could be a boost to a Nationals bullpen that doesn’t currently have any left-handers and also remains short on experienced late-inning arms.

“The key is for him to keep progressing the way he is, and then we’ll re-evaluate as he gets going,” Martinez said. “If everything comes out OK and he’s doing what we hope he can do, yeah, it’ll be a conversation (general manager Mike Rizzo) and I will have, and we’ll see where he’s at then.”

* Israel Pineda has joined Doolittle in Wilmington, his finger and shoulder finally healed to the point he can begin an official rehab assignment. The 23-year-old catcher, who fractured his finger on a foul tip during spring training and then had a setback with his shoulder more recently, debuted for Wilmington on Thursday and went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.

Once he’s deemed fully healthy, Pineda figures to go to Triple-A Rochester, where he was slated to open the season as the organization’s catcher-in-waiting in case something happened to either Keibert Ruiz or Riley Adams.

* Victor Robles made the trip with the team but is still in the early stages of his rehab from a back injury that first sidelined him three weeks ago.

Robles, who officially went on the 10-day IL with back spasms, is engaging in some light baseball activities but doesn’t appear close to returning.

“We thought once he got over the spasms that it could be something different, and sure enough it’s taking a little more time,” Martinez said. “We’re dealing with a back issue, so we want to be very cautious with him. But he said he felt better today. He’s going to go out there and do some more strengthening stuff. I know he’s taken some swings off the tee, very light. Hopefully that will progress.”

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