If there is any consolation for Sean Doolittle, for whom a seemingly innocuous foot pain turned into an agonizing two-month disabled list stint, it is that no one christened the Nationals Park bullpen cart in his absence. Barring a surprise hailing from some eager visitor, Doolittle will become the first reliever to ride the cart into a game when he finally reappears for the Nationals this weekend. This, of course, is barely consolation.
Doolittle never thought the stress reaction in his foot would turn into a lingering injury that cost him the defining months of the Nationals’ season.
“I would have said you were crazy. I was feeling really good, pitching better than I ever have in my career,” said Doolittle, who was pitching to a 1.45 ERA in 35 games at the time of his injury. ” . . . but it’s one of the things the DL does. It gives you some perspective. It humbles you.”
The left-hander had established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball by relying heavily on one pitch, his explosive and deceptive fastball. Among relievers who have thrown at least 30 innings this year, Doolittle has the fifth-highest swing-and-miss percentage. Oakland’s Blake Treinen, for whom he was traded, ranks fourth.
As he was working his way back from the injury in his left foot, the one off which he makes his delivery, Doolittle tinkered with his mechanics to avoid agitating the problem further — then realized he would risk worse injury or diminished performance by doing so. Now, Doolittle says, his mechanics are intact and he feels like he is pitching well enough to handle late-inning duties. He threw what he characterized as an extra simulated game to ensure that.
Doolittle also believes the injury won’t linger into the offseason, which is a problem many players encounter this time of year. On losing teams like this one, injured players often decide not to push to get back, choosing instead to do everything they can to heal before their offseasons. Doolittle believes he will be able to have a normal offseason, not one dedicated to rehab. Offseasons like those can often lead to early season struggles.
“One, he’s anxious to be back and he wants to help us win games,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Two is to get him back out on the mound and have him go through the winter saying ‘you know what? I’m healthy. I’m good.’ Let’s worry about strengthening and what he always does with his routine in the winter.”
Doolittle will regain his spot at closer, a role that has been filled by a variety of people in his absence. Koda Glover, Justin Miller, and Greg Holland will likely set him up for the rest of the season, though the Nationals will have to reconstruct the bullpen in front of Doolittle next year. The 31-year-old has a team option for 2019 and 2020, the first of which is for $6 million — a relative steal for a closer of his recent caliber. At that price, the Nationals seem almost certain to pick it up. As of a month ago, they planned to do so according to a person familiar with their plans.
Their plans for right-hander Jeremy Hellickson remain less clear. Hellickson threw a 50-pitch simulated game Friday afternoon, one in which he was able to throw all his pitches comfortably. Hellickson sprained his wrist last month, but is now ready to a return to what has become a crowded rotation. He will throw another bullpen Sunday, at which point the Nationals will have to decide how to handle him. Joe Ross was the starter Friday night, and Erick Fedde has also been slotted in as a regular piece of the rotation. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Tanner Roark are still operating on every-five-days schedules. Hellickson has no clear spot.
Martinez said the Nationals considered a six-man rotation, but want to keep sticklers Scherzer and Strasburg on regular rest. So Hellickson’s future will depend on how Ross handles his first start back from the disabled list and whether Fedde can establish himself, too.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (69-72)
Adam Eaton RF
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper CF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Juan Soto LF
Adrian Sanchez 2B
Spencer Kieboom C
Joe Ross P
CHICAGO CUBS (83-57)
Daniel Murphy 2B
Javy Baez SS
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Kris Bryant RF
Kyle Schwarber LF
David Bote 3B
Willson Contreras C
Jon Lester P
Ian Happ CF