Knee issue lands struggling Doolittle on injured list

The Nationals won’t be answering incessant questions about closer Sean Doolittle’s recent ineffectiveness - well, for at least another 10 days or so.

Doolittle was placed on the 10-day injured list Sunday morning with right knee tendinitis, hours after coughing up four runs in one-third of an inning and failing to protect an 11-8 lead in the ninth inning. The Nationals went on to lose 15-14 in 14 innings Saturday night.

Manager Davey Martinez and Nationals medical personnel met with Doolittle this morning and made the decision to send him to the sidelines in the middle of a pennant race in hopes he can return to form for the September stretch run.

Doolittle-Fist-Pump-White-sidebar.jpg“It came to a head when I talked to him (and he said) that his right knee’s bothering him,” said Martinez. “So we want to get it right. So we put him on the IL. Hopefully, it won’t take as long, he’s back in 10 days and when he does come back, he’s our closer. And I reiterated that to him. He’s our closer, but we got to get him right.”

To replace Doolittle on the 25-man roster - and to give the overtaxed Nats bullpen a fresh arm - right-hander Kyle McGowin was recalled from Double-A Harrisburg.

The transaction was announced after the media’s morning access in the Nationals clubhouse and before Martinez’s daily media session, so Doolittle was not available to comment on the injury. But after last night’s game, he said: “Tonight, man, I just didn’t have anything. So, yeah, we’re going to have to figure something out. I’m going to have to figure something out. Because this team, they deserve better right now.”

Since July 31, when general manager Mike Rizzo acquired three relievers - right-handers Hunter Strickland and Daniel Hudson and lefty Roenis Elías - to tighten up the back end of the bullpen and take some of the pressure off Doolittle, the southpaw closer has struggled mightily.

Doolittle has gone 0-1 with five saves, two blown saves and a 12.86 ERA in eight August games. During that span, opposing hitters have slashed .400/.432/.943 off him and Doolittle’s velocity has dipped. Because he relies almost exclusively on his fastball, hitters have been teeing off on flat pitches over the plate. According to FanGraphs, Doolittle has an average fastball velocity of 93.6 mph this season. The average velocity on his fastball Saturday night was 91.8 mph.

Until Doolittle returns, Martinez said he will mix and match depending on matchups to determine who will close games. That means Hudson, Strickland, Fernando Rodney and, when he returns from a stint on the injured list with right hamstring strain, Elías would be in line for save chances.

In a bigger picture, the manager will probably do the same thing for the seventh and eighth innings, hoping that Doolittle’s balky knee responds to treatment and he only stays the minimum time on the IL.

But even when peppered with questions about why he continued to turn to Doolittle when his inability to put away hitters put the Nationals at a disadvantage, or when why the southpaw was called upon when there were fresher options who had been more effective, Martinez remained resolute about Doolittle’s role.

Doolittle will have to yield the closer’s role while he’s sidelined, Martinez said, but will reassume those duties once he’s healthy.

“When he comes back, he’ll be the closer, but we’ll have to re-elevate situations to make sure and we talked about this today,” Martinez said. “We have six weeks to go - and then some. We need him for the duration, we need Doolittle to pull this off. We do. And he understands that.”

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