Then, with a run in and the tying run at second base, he broke Mike Trout’s bat and got Albert Pujols to hit a weak flyball to left. It was over, and it was all okay in the end.
“I promise they won’t all be like that,” said Doolittle, whose explanation for the shakiness could make anyone who heard it willing to believe him.
Doolittle said he had not felt adrenaline like what he experienced Tuesday since his major league debut in 2012. Doolittle had never played for anyone but the Athletics. Tuesday was his introduction to a clubhouse and fan base desperate for his help, willing itself to block out that pesky fear of disappointment and believe he and fellow former Athletics reliever, Ryan Madson, can provide it.
“I’ve been around a little bit longer than him, and it was a tough inning for me emotionally,” Madson said. “And it was tough for him, so it was nice to just be able to get through that first day. Tomorrow will probably be back to normal. Looking forward to that.”
Madson agreed with Doolittle — something about the whole experience felt just like his debut. Even World Series games, he said, had not carried the same intensity. The 36-year-old was better able to harness his adrenaline at first, and worked through a 1-2-3 eighth inning after which the Nationals dugout, by multiple accounts, exploded in unbridled glee.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever been more excited in a big league ballgame that we got out of the eighth inning,” Bryce Harper said later.
“They don’t have to do that every time,” Madson said, “but the first time out, that was really cool. It was like a welcome to the team.”
After Madson departed, Adam Lind homered to give Doolittle a two-run lead heading to the ninth. Both Doolittle and Madson have closed — Doolittle has 37 career saves, Madson 86 — but Dusty Baker said he chose Doolittle for the ninth because he had heard Madson handled the eighth better. Besides, the Angels had lefties due in the ninth, and fewer in the eighth, which set things up nicely to use Doolittle then. As one reporter had reminded him before the game — prompting Doolittle to look around helplessly for a block of wood on which to knock — he had yet to allow a hit to left-handed hitters this season. They were 0 for 23 against him entering Tuesday.
After Doolittle walked the leadoff man, an uncharacteristic lapse, Calhoun broke through on behalf of lefties, sending a double to right center that missed being a home run by a few feet. Instead, it left runners on second and third with one out for Trout and Pujols.
“I think you could tell, there were a little bit of nerves in the beginning, a leadoff walk. Then I started to settle down,” Doolittle said. “But when you walk the leadoff guy you kind of open up Pandora’s box a little bit.”
With first base open, the Nationals decided to let Doolittle face Trout, who was 3 for 7 against him with a home run in his career. Doolittle said he didn’t even really consider pitching around Trout. Baker did.
“I’ve been beaten by Albert Pujols more than I’ve been beaten by Trout, know what I mean?” Baker said. “Then if you get Pujols out, you’ve got the dangerous hitter [Yunel Escobar] up next. That’s not my ideal situation, to have to choose between Trout and Pujols … sometimes you take a shot and win. Sometimes you take a shot and lose.”
In this situation, he won. Doolittle broke Trout’s bat with an inside fastball that bounced harmlessly to shortstop. Pujols popped weakly to left. Though he allowed a run, Doolittle did not concede the lead.
“Getting that stuff out of the way — those are things that have been talked about so much, the walks, the numbers against the lefties — you’re aware of those things,” Doolittle said. “Getting that out of the way feels good.”
With a day off coming Thursday, and just one inning of work apiece over the last three days, both Doolittle and Madson should be available again Wednesday. Tuesday, they did what they were acquired to do — locked down the last two innings, adventurous though they were — and headed to the high-five line having helped secure the kind of game that has beaten the Nationals down over and over.
As Doolittle passed through that line, Daniel Murphy abandoned the usual quick high five, opting instead to pause and make eye contact.
“Welcome to the Nationals,” he told Doolittle, who cannot possibly understand how glad the Nationals are to have him.