The Nationals returned home after a successful road swing to more good news. Closer Sean Doolittle is making steady progress in his recovery from right knee tendinitis that has kept him on the shelf since August 18.
“I’ve been staying pretty busy. Kind of the general, overall philosophy we’ve been working on is rather than like sitting around and letting it rest, I think the best way to handle it was to kick start the engine a little bit,” Doolittle said at his locker prior to tonight’s series opener against the Orioles at Nats Park.
“A lot of times what happens when you are dealing with an injury, some of the other muscles in the area shut down. I’ve been doing a lot of workouts, two-a-day workouts over the last week. You really aren’t going to get that much stronger in that much time but one thing that I’ve really noticed is putting it under a lot of stress, being able to go through workouts you start being able to develop that trust in it again.”
Doolittle said he also does not feel like he has to be careful with his knee.
“I can drive down the mound, land on it,” he said. “I can absorb that force and get out over my front side. Yeah, I might feel it a little bit, but the other muscles are firing to really help it and it’s not looming so large in the back of my head.”
Doolittle has already worked his way through three bullpen sessions which have paved the way for a major step on Wednesday. He says his left arm feels “a lot better.”
His update: “We’ve changed some mechanical stuff that I feel really good about. The plan is to throw a simulated game tomorrow with the goal being activated sometime during the series against the Marlins.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez confirmed the sim game Wednesday at Nats Park.
“(I)f it goes well we will see what happens this weekend. He’s actually doing a lot better. He feels good. So tomorrow we will determine what happens next. If everything goes well we’d love to get Doolittle back. But we’ll see how he throws tomorrow.”
Doolittle said the time off has allowed him to make some minor tweaks to his mechanics which has allowed him to bring the pitch to the plate at full force.
“It’s coming back,” Doolittle said of the crispness in delivery. “It’s been better and the feedback I’ve gotten has kind of echoed that. Being able to kind of gather my momentum over the rubber before I go down the mound has really helped me stay on top of, and behind the baseball, rather than kind of underneath it where I was before.
“I was almost falling down the mound and pushing it to home plate and that now I feel like I can stay taller and use the spin rates and get the extension that I need to get that’d deception back in my delivery. I’ve been happy with the progress I’ve made so far.”
Doolittle had made 54 appearances prior to his injured list stay. The 52 innings already the most he has thrown in a season since 2014. So, he admitted his knee was hurting. After the All-Star break, his fastball became hittable and his ERA dropped to 7.36 in 15 games.
“It’s all kind of tied together because with the knee barking the way that it was, if I can’t get over my front side, and I can’t get that extension, (then) mechanics fall apart after that. I don’t know if it’s like a time thing. I threw two 20-pitch bullpens, one in Pittsburgh and one while we were in Chicago, and I threw 25 pitches in Chicago in my third bullpen. So as stamina goes, I think I’ll be OK.
“Tomorrow will be another increase in that, with the warm-up pitches I’ll throw in the bullpen. I’ll probably throw 35 pitches. I just feel like I can get in such a better position mechanically and I’m sure the time off has helped my arm out too.”
The knee was hurting, but Doolittle also believes that these past nine days have allowed him to exhale a bit, and mentally calm himself.
“To be honest, I kind of needed a mental break,” Doolittle said. “That two-week stretch there was really rough. All throughout that process I was looking for answers. I was trying to find things and make adjustments, and none of them were working. So, when you are spinning your wheels like that, it’s kind of a really helpless feeling. You are searching for answers and you don’t really know how to fix it or where that fix is going to come from. So, to be able to press pause and get my body right just helps me a lot mentally as well. I’m in a much better place right now.”
Doolittle is aware of spin rates and wants to see in this sim game and upcoming bullpen sessions that his fastball has the life it needs to get batters out. He is anxious to get back into a live baseball game with live hitters to see how his stuff plays now.
“I’m putting my body in a better position to throw,” Doolittle said. “I think it’s a little bit more of an efficient delivery that’s helping it come out cleaner. I’m looking forward to tomorrow getting some feedback from hitters stepping in. We will have the ‘edgertronic,’ the high-speed cameras, out there so we can really break things down. That’s kind of the final hurdle to see everything where it’s supposed to be before we come back.”
Martinez also confirmed that when Doolittle returns, whether its this weekend or next, he returns as the club’s closer.
“I think this little IL stint helped him out in many ways,” Martinez said. “But just getting him right. The biggest thing is getting him right and getting him to come back and feel good about himself.
“Moving forward Doolittle will be our closer. I said that before.”