PITTSBURGH - Sean Doolittle knew his mechanics were out of whack, knew he wasn’t getting life and spin on his fastball the way he always had, knew his arm and body were fatigued.
He also believed he could battle his way through it and still pitch effectively for a Nationals team that seemed to need him for the ninth inning way more nights of the week than it didn’t.
But after watching the Brewers torch him for three homers in the span of four batters during his latest blown save Saturday night, Doolittle realized he could no longer fool himself or his team that he was fine.
“This has been something I’ve been dealing with for quite a while,” the lefty said Monday. “I’ve just been finding a way to get it done. But the last two weeks have been so bad, the results. Enough’s enough. We have to hit pause and reset.”
That’s exactly what Doolittle and the Nationals decided to do Sunday morning. He went on the 10-day injured list with right knee tendinitis. The ailment is legitimate; he’s dealt with knee issues at various points throughout his pitching career. But consider this a 10-day break for his arm as well, and a much-needed one at that.
Doolittle pitched in 54 of the Nationals’ first 122 games. That left him on pace for 72 total appearances by season’s end. That would be a career-high. He hasn’t appeared in more than 53 games in a single season since 2014 with the Athletics.
The workload didn’t negatively affect his performance through much of the season’s first four months. He owned a 2.72 ERA and 23 saves in 27 opportunities through his first 44 games.
But over his last 10 games, Doolittle has suffered two blown saves and took the loss in another contest. He gave up 12 runs in nine innings, with seven home runs surrendered.
And it all came to a head late Saturday night when he entered with a three-run lead in the top of the ninth and proceeded to give up three homers and a double to the first four Brewers batters he faced, then a deep flyout to the warning track before manager Davey Martinez finally removed him from the game.
That’s when Doolittle realized it was time to shut it down.
“Guys have rounds of batting practice that won’t go that well,” he said. “You know: Homer, double, homer, homer, deep fly ball. That’s a good round of five. That’s not me. The team deserves better, and I have to get myself right.”
How will he do that? Doolittle spent considerable time at PNC Park on Monday afternoon getting treatment and going through a workout designed to help strengthen his legs. Then he planned to go through another workout for his upper body and shoulder.
He took two days off from throwing but intends to resume playing catch today. At some point, he’ll get up on the bullpen mound and actually try to throw pitches, but not yet.
He wants to use these sessions to help correct his mechanical glitches, most notably an attempt to get his body more in sync so he can return to throwing more over-the-top, which should bring back the late life and increased spin that has made his fastball so effective for years.
“Try to kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “Get my arm feeling right, give it a chance to bounce back and be ready to go for September.”
Doolittle believes the time off will be enough to leave him fresh for the season’s final month, and potentially beyond.
When the lefty does return, Martinez insists he’ll return to his same role. Doolittle will be the closer, Martinez reiterated Monday.
“He’s earned the right to be closer,” the skipper said. “And he’s proved that time and again.”
Doolittle, while appreciating the support, admits he can’t take anything for granted at this point.
“I mean, that’s awesome to get that vote of confidence from your manager,” he said. “But I have to pitch better if I want to stay in that role. I appreciate him saying that, but the mentality that I’m taking back is we have some really good arms in the back end of this bullpen, and there are a few guys that could slide into that role. ...
“Everything is about winning. And however they want to play it, I’ll be ready for whatever they want me to do when I come back.”