If anyone could use this break, it’s Sean Doolittle.
The closer was the most consistent part of the Nationals bullpen for 80 games, but recently he has been hit more frequently.
He racked up 19 saves in 22 opportunities in the first half for a 3.13 ERA. But since June 23, Doolittle has allowed nine hits in his last seven games, with two runs and three walks. And yet he still notched three saves.
On Sunday, Doolittle (6-2) picked up the win when the Nats rallied for three runs in the bottom of the eighth and dropped the Royals 5-2.
But the top of the inning saw the Royals score two runs to tie the game at 2-2. Leading 2-0, Fernando Rodney recorded two outs in the eighth, but then gave up an RBI single to Adalberto Mondesi to cut the Nats’ lead to 2-1.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez summoned Doolittle to get the final out of the eighth and then three in the ninth.
But Alex Gordon connected on a 92-mph low fastball to right-center field off of Doolittle. The double scored Mondesi to tie the game 2-2. Doolittle was assessed with a blown save, his third of the season.
But leading 2-0 going into the eighth, it was a scenario that appeared to set up nicely for the Nats. The club has used Rodney in the eighth and Doolittle in the ninth recently with some success. Martinez has talked all season about finding that bridge between the seventh and the ninth innings, a weakness that derailed the club for most of the first 50 games of the season.
“We got guys. We got eight guys in our bullpen that are going to pitch,” Martinez said. “Fernando was not bad. He was actually good. He’s been pitching well. At that particular moment, Doolittle was the right matchup for Gordon.”
Doolittle likes to pitch up in the zone to get batters to chase his moving fastball. But he likes to sometimes start lower with the fastball to begin the count. But Gordon got a good eye on the pitch and laced it to right-center.
Was Doolittle trying to put the pitch somewhere else?
“No. That’s where I wanted to go. I think he just got me,” Doolittle said. “That’s a pitch that’s down and away to lefties, that sets up a lot of the other things I’m trying to do over the course of the at-bat. Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe we should have spun him to get him off the fastball, but then I looked at the radar gun and it was only 92, so that’s kind of all I had in the tank today.
“He did a really good job. He’s changed his approach a couple of times over the last couple of years. He’s swinging really well. He had a great series.”
So many times this year, Doolittle has bailed out his team and saved them in the late innings, sometimes having to pitch three games in a row or get more than three outs. This time his teammates rewarded him with a dramatic three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by a two-run double from pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick.
“Oh my gosh. That was awesome,” Doolittle said. “I mean, I might be a little biased because they kind of got me off the hook there. I think that was our best win of the year. Rubber game of a series.”
Doolittle took advantage of the good fortune and recorded three outs in the ninth to earn the victory.
“Tough eighth inning. That’s a situation where the last day before the All-Star break, guys could be already be looking forward to the break,” Doolittle said. “Guys put together the best at-bats of the day there in the bottom of the eighth inning and gave me three runs to work with. I can’t tell you how much I love being a part of this team. The way that we’ve battled over the last [six] weeks, really coming together, picking each other up, grinding it out, it’s been fun.”
How much fun is the team having? Well, they are 48-42 for starters. The 28-11 run ties their best 39-game mark in franchise history. And there’s the camaraderie. After Adam Eaton slid home safe in the eighth with the go-ahead run, Max Scherzer raced out of the dugout, thinking it was the bottom of the ninth and the Nats had walked off with a win. His teammates had fun watching Scherzer high five the dugout after taking a U-turn away from celebrating on the field. The clubhouse staff put Scherzer’s walk-off “winner” on a loop inside the clubhouse for all to see.
“I’m watching Max high-five Eaton off the field right now,” Doolittle said with a laugh. “There’s energy off the dugout. The guys that aren’t in the game are pulling for the guys. I was trying to stay locked in, but I gotta go back out and Max is out there on the field. So I don’t know. That was awesome.”
But in the end, of the many players who need some rest to lick their wounds - Anthony Rendon and Scherzer come to mind - maybe it’s Doolittle who will benefit most from the All-Star break.
“Winning is hard. It’s easy to lose. You just kind of show up,” Doolittle said. “But winning like today, grinding that game out, that took a lot mentally as well. And that wears on you. As well as we’ve played, part of us wants to keep going, but I think we got a bunch of guys that are a little banged up, maybe playing through some stuff right now.
“For the schedule that we have to start the second half, it’s a good time for a break so everybody can kind of regroup and recharge and be ready to go for the second half.”
It is critical that Doolittle is rested for the final 73 regular season games beginning Friday in Philadelphia. The closer has already made 39 appearances this season. He made 43 appearances during all of last year’s injury-plagued season.
A formula for success for Martinez when dealing with Doolittle starting next Friday?
Find a way to not overuse his extremely valuable closer down the stretch.