If Doolittle could get ready in time, he was coming in to face Bryce Harper. It didn’t matter that the game was tied. It didn’t matter that the Nationals were on the road. It didn’t matter what baseball convention says about how to use your closer in this very situation. That was Martinez’s plan.
“I want Doolittle on him and we’ll figure things out later on,” Martinez recalled after the game, a stirring 10-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals’ best performance of the season and an uptick for their struggling bullpen.
The results counted Tuesday, because they always do, because the season is long and losses only make it feel longer. Doolittle punched out Harper on four pitches: a top-of-the zone fastball for strike one, a low slider for strike two, a higher fastball for ball one and, finally, a 94-mph sweet-spot heater that Harper swung through. Doolittle then retired J.T. Realmuto, two hitters later, to end the ninth and strand the go-ahead run on second. Then he came out for the 10th, once Washington took a four-run lead, and ended the game with a one-two-three, no-nonsense frame to keep his ERA at 0.00 and earn a National League-leading third win.
He got the final five outs of six scoreless innings from the Nationals’ relievers, who entered the game with the league’s worst ERA and have otherwise sprinted into trouble so far this year. But what counted more, and what could resonate beyond one April victory, was how Martinez used the 32-year-old Doolittle in the first place. It shouldn’t be novel for a manager to put his best reliever against the other team’s best hitter, especially when it is a lefty-on-lefty matchup in a critical situation. Yet Doolittle is a closer, a weight-bearing label, and so any perceived logic is a bit more complicated.
The organization expects — or, at the very least, hopes — Martinez will be better with his bullpen management this season. Martinez expressed, way back in spring training, that more creativity could help. On Tuesday, in just the 10th game of year, he took a step in both directions.
“You want your best guy in the bullpen with the ball in those situations,” Harper said after the game. “He’s their best arm. Nothing against anybody else, but Doolittle is Sean Doolittle. If you have a guy like that, you want to win with your best and lose with your best. So yeah, I definitely thought that I would see him.”
Traditional thinking is against Doolittle pitching in that spot, since it was a non-save opportunity in an away game. A closer, that thinking goes, should be held in case the road teams takes a lead in the top of an inning. Then Doolittle, an all-star closer, would come in to protect that lead and shut the door in the bottom half. That’s been the best-laid strategy for decades. It’s also the kind of strategy Martinez typically follows.
Doolittle made 43 total appearances in an injury-shortened 2019, and all but five of them were at the start of an inning. But three of his five appearances this season have come with runners on base and one out. Part of that is due to how much the bullpen has struggled, with roles shifted because setup man Trevor Rosenthal has made four appearances, thrown 39 pitches, allowed seven earned runs and not recorded an out. But another part of it reflects Martinez’s capacity for incremental change.
By saying “I want Doolittle on [Harper] and we’ll figure things out later on,” Martinez went with his most-reliable arm in the game’s most important matchup. Whatever happened after that would be dealt with once the Nationals got Harper out with the game-winning run leading off first. Doolittle also faced Rhys Hoskins and Realmuto, two feared right-handed hitters, before the ninth inning was out. If Doolittle were pinch-hit for in the next half, Martinez still had Sipp, Wander Suero, Justin Miller and Rosenthal in the bullpen. Instead the Nationals built a three-run lead before the pitcher’s spot came up, Martinez let Doolittle hit for himself, and Doolittle remained in the game to end it with 22 total pitches. It was different. And different worked.
“You can’t have an ego in the bullpen,” Doolittle said of throwing multiple innings instead of his usual one. “At the end of the day, we’re a group. We’re only as good as the sum of our parts. Whatever you’re called on to do that day, you’ve got to be willing to do it for the boys.”
He is, in theory, the perfect closer to utilize this way. He filled a bunch of different roles for the Oakland Athletics earlier in his career, as a closer, a setup man, a matchup lefty specialist and even a middle reliever at times. If Martinez wants to use Doolittle before the ninth, all he has to do is tell him a few hours before first pitch. That way Doolittle can bump up his pregame routine, from lifting to cardio to the stretching he does in the bullpen as the innings unfold. It is all timed to get him ready for the ninth. But it can be shifted.
This won’t always be an option for Martinez. There are 152 games remaining, Doolittle is his most valuable reliever, and he can’t manage every night like the season is on the line. That’s not sustainable across six months, especially when unproven relievers limit flexibility and imagination. But it is now up to Martinez to choose, carefully, when to make Doolittle his queen on the chessboard.
He did that Tuesday, and it looked like the start of something.
“I just want to win,” Doolittle said. “If the matchups or Davey say they want me in a different spot, I’m going to take that closer mentality into whatever spot it is.”