Sean Doolittle admitted it. After pitching for the 52nd time in 118 games - a rate that leaves him on pace to establish a new career high with 71 appearances by season’s end - and in five of the Nationals’ last seven games, the club’s closer admitted his gas tank is running low.
“I mean, that’s 5-of-7, in the middle of August, in the first season (in a long time) where I’m still going,” Doolittle said with a chuckle. “I haven’t put together a season like this in a while. I’m starting to feel it a little bit.”
Doolittle is not saying he’s injured. He wants to be clear about it. And he’s not blaming anyone for his workload. It’s simply the byproduct of a Nationals season that began with 31 losses in 50 games, featured precious few other relievers who could be trusted in big spots and now has reached the final seven weeks with pressure on this team to win every single night to remain atop the wild card standings.
But clearly he’s not feeling as fresh as he’d like to feel when he takes the mound. And the results over the last two weeks have confirmed it.
Doolittle has pitched a clean, 1-2-3 inning only three times in his last eight appearances. He’s been scored upon in four of those appearances. He has allowed home runs in all four of those appearances.
Monday night’s game was the latest example. Handed a three-run lead in the top of the ninth, Doolittle immediately gave up a homer to Phillip Ervin, then a single to José Iglesias. Then, after recording a pair of outs, he allowed an RBI double to Joey Votto. It wasn’t until he got Josh VanMeter to pop up, stranding the tying runner on second base, that Doolittle could exhale and the Nationals could escape with a 7-6 win over the Reds.
“That was tough, man,” Doolittle said. “The whole inning was tough.”
Velocity wasn’t the problem. Doolittle threw 20 four-seam fastballs and averaged 94.2 mph with the pitch.
“I felt like I had the velo on my fastball,” he said. “Maybe not the life and the deception that I normally have.”
How does he get the life and deception back? Some would say he needs time off, but the Nationals can’t afford to do that at this point. And Doolittle knows it.
To him, the solution isn’t to scale back his workload. It’s to adjust the work he does in between his actual game appearances.
“It’s mid-August. Everybody’s gassed,” he said. “It’s a marathon, for sure. The good teams find a way. The good players find a way to catch that second wind. You really want to be playing your best baseball in September and peaking at the right time. There’s still every opportunity to do that. I’ve hit a couple of speed bumps here recently. It hasn’t been as smooth as I wanted it to be. But I can still accomplish everything.”
Here’s part of the problem: The Nationals seem to wind up in exactly the same situation every single night, leading by a few runs late and needing their closer to take the mound. They’ve now been either tied or ahead in the seventh inning or later in 44 of their last 48 games. They hardly ever trail late. They hardly ever lead by a sizeable margin late, either.
“If Doo needs a day (off), he’ll get a day and then we go somewhere else,” manager Davey Martinez said. “If Doo’s available, Doo’s our closer. I got all the confidence in the world in him. People were talking about this in the New York series (after he blew a three-run lead Friday). Guess what? He came in Sunday and did a great job. He came in today and held down the fort. So I’m proud of Doo. I’m sure he’s been through this before, and to me it’s no big deal. But he’s our closer.”
The Nationals hoped the extra depth they’ve acquired for their bullpen might help reduce the need to go to Doolittle so much. That hasn’t really been the case yet. But they’re now adding another experienced late-inning reliever who could help out in the coming weeks.
Greg Holland, who thrived during his three months with the Nationals last season, has agreed to a minor league contract to return to the organization, according to a source familiar with the deal.
The 33-year-old right-hander, who was recently released by the Diamondbacks, will be in Washington today to take a physical. If he passes, he’ll be assigned either to the roster at Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg, and the Nationals could add him to the big league bullpen either later this month or, more likely, in September once rosters expand.