The anchor of their bullpen had dealt with right knee tendinitis for most of August. He had not been himself for a while. Whether because of overuse or general fatigue, the left-hander was not getting the velocity and swing-and-miss results he had demonstrated all season, the backbone of his effectiveness.
But finishing Tuesday’s first game of a doubleheader, Doolittle displayed a glimpse of that ability to get batters out, and put together a quick, clean inning in the Nationals’ 4-1 win over the Phillies.
Plus Doolittle had to accomplish this against the top of the Phillies order: César Hernández popped out to catcher, the dangerous Bryce Harper grounded out to second base and Rhys Hoskins flew out to center field for the 1-2-3 eighth inning.
Doolittle fired six four-seam fastballs to Hernández, reaching 93-94 mph. Against Harper it was four sliders around 81-83 mph, and two fastballs. For Hoskins, it was his 93-94 mph fastballs again.
The Phillies went quietly, three-up and three-down. Daniel Hudson earned the save in the ninth by inducing three flyouts.
In Doolittle’s matchup with Harper, who later blasted a solo shot in the second game, he forced the right fielder to attempt to bunt to get on base.
“I was happy with it,” Doolittle said. “I think it’s another step forward. I’ve made some mechanical changes to try to stay more compact and get my momentum going more towards the plate more consistently. I’m starting to get that extension back. I think the swings that I’m starting to get on the fastball kind of tell a little bit of the story.”
Doolittle got ahead of Harper with his slider: a swinging strike on the first pitch, and then a bunt foul to go 0-2.
“We’re starting to miss barrels again,” Doolittle continued. “We’re getting popups and routine fly balls. I was able to use the slider effectively against the lefty in there. So, I’m happy with it. It’s another step forward. I’m not proclaiming to be back, by any means. I think this is still an ongoing process, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
Doolittle pointed to the sequence in Harper’s at-bat.
“The first one for sure was pretty close to his danger zone,” he said. “And the fact that he missed it, I think that’s a good sign for me. I wasn’t happy with that. I was pretty happy with the way I executed the second one. It might not have been as elevated as I would have liked it, but I thought it was still a really competitive pitch. The times that I did miss it over the plate, they weren’t really getting the barrel on it, they weren’t really getting good swings on it. Those are all really good signs, in my opinion.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez said Doolittle is making progress. With the Nats clinching a playoff spot and five regular season games remaining before the wild card game, his closer is getting back to normal just in time.
“We’ve come a long way with Doo in the last month,” Martinez said. “He feels good. We changed some things. We like where he’s at. He likes where he’s at a lot. And I told him: ‘I know you’re used to striking guys out.’ For him right now, it’s just to get outs. It’s important for him to worry about just getting outs. He didn’t throw 25 pitches today and got three outs. I think he was under 20. That, to me, was awesome. And if he can mix in his breaking balls like he did to left-handed hitters, that’s going to help him down the stretch here.”
Doolittle threw 15 pitches, 11 for strikes. It was his first appearance in a game in eight days.
Hudson came on to record the save in the ninth inning. He also recorded another save in game two with another 1-2-3 frame.
Does Hudson believe he should be the closer now because of his hot hand?
“Absolutely not. You’ve seen my track record, it’s not very good in the ninth inning,” Hudson said. “But like ... I told Davey when I got here, I’m good to go for whatever he needs me to do, and it just kind of evolved into the ninth inning in the last couple weeks. I said a couple weeks ago, we need Doo throwing in the ninth inning to get where we need to go. He’s been locked in lately and, hopefully, he goes to that spot.”
Martinez’s trust in Hudson, most likely born out of necessity at first, is a good thing for the Nats when they look to get outs in the eighth and ninth innings this postseason.
“I like where (Doolittle’s) at right now,” Martinez said. “I like where Hudson’s at right now. Those two guys, they’re going to pitch the eighth and ninth inning. And if we can get him to do that, that helps us out a lot. Look, with only one left-handed guy in the bullpen, it’s key that he can come in like he did today and get some big lefties out for us.”
Plus, without left-hander Roenis Elías available because of a sore hamstring, Doolittle might also have to be his left-handed specialist now too. Either way, having more than one arm to go to - and be confident in - when the game is on the line is a luxury Martinez has not been able to enjoy much this regular season. Now Hudson and Doolittle provide that solution, and at the right time.