LOS ANGELES — It’s the gap between the eighth inning and ninth, between Sean Doolittle’s most recent pitch and his next one, that has forced the Washington Nationals closer to get creative this season.
There have been times in Doolittle’s career, such aslast year, that followed a specific rhythm: Start stretching in the sixth. Start throwing in the bullpen in the eighth. Enter in the ninth, with the score close, and get three outs to seal the win or hold a tie. Then wake up the next day and do it again.
But this year has jumbled his routines because, given the Nationals’ bullpen struggles, Manager Dave Martinez has needed him outside the final inning. So there Doolittle was, between the eighth and ninth in Philadelphia on April 9, throwing 10 balls into a net as hard as he could to keep his arm loose. Or in Denver on April 23, riding an exercise bike to keep his adrenaline flowing. Or in Los Angeles on Thursday, stretching and throwing in the batting cage before finishing off a win with 15 pitches.
The 32-year-old is familiar with warming up quickly, working back-to-back days, getting the call when situations start to resemble fire drills. Yet he had not been a multi-inning reliever for the Nationals until this year, at least not consistently, and with that comes the challenge of not losing strength, rhythm, energy or focus after he finishes one frame and waits to go back out.
“It’s not something I’ve done a lot of in my career,” Doolittle said. “So I really have to work harder to stay loose in between. I’m moving around behind the scenes and trying to stay loose.”
Since joining the Nationals in 2017 in a midseason trade that also brought reliever Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics, Doolittle has been one of baseball’s more effective relievers, as long as he’s healthy. He has been this season and entered Saturday with a 1.06 ERA, five saves in five opportunities and three wins. Martinez has used him in the eighth five times because the Nationals’ bullpen has been otherwise shaky and Trevor Rosenthal, their expected setup man, is with Class AA Harrisburg trying to rediscover his command.
Doolittle threw more than one inning just five times all of last season — a number slightly skewed because he spent two months on the injured list — and that is why Martinez has to balance caution with using Doolittle how he pleases. Doolittle has appeared only once in the past six days but before that had pitched in just less than half of Washington’s games.
“Look, do I want to use Doolittle in the eighth inning all the time? No,” Martinez said Friday, some 17 hours after Doolittle got the last four outs of a victory. “But sometimes we need to, and he understands that.”
It can often feel like the jobs Doolittle had before coming to Washington, even if the Nationals don’t want him getting used to this again. He was a setup man, a lefty specialist and occasionally a closer for the Athletics during the first 5½ years of his career. That taught him to adapt to all situations. It’s why he doesn’t have the ego of many closers, who believe they should only pitch in the ninth, and is the right fit for Martinez’s hybridized role. And his eighth-inning appearances have mostly been for specific matchups, such as facing lefty Bryce Harper in a big spot in April or the left-handed Max Muncy with the bases loaded Thursday.
That part is familiar to Doolittle, who has made his living in high-stakes situations. Getting up and down — the baseball term for finishing one inning and then pitching another — is the part he’s readjusting to. He often has a jacket and sweatshirt on between innings to keep a sweat going. He has to move, in the dugout or in the hallways behind it, and will either throw or ride a bike to sustain a high heart rate. He has even had to take two at-bats this year, a rarity for a reliever, and make sure he doesn’t lose steam when standing at the plate.
Closing, for Doolittle, is about maintaining a spike of adrenaline and channeling it into each pitch. That is how he gets his fastball into the mid-90s and succeeds when a game hangs on his left arm. So that only makes that time between innings more important because it would be so easy for him to start cooling down. The Nationals’ bullpen, with a major league-worst 6.24 ERA heading into Saturday’s game against the Dodgers, cannot afford him to slip up. He has been their best arm and, for stretches, Martinez’s only reliable option.
That has been true in the eighth and the ninth, giving Doolittle another routine to test and iron out.
“I’ve kind of done a little bit of everything,” Doolittle said this season of being used in new ways. “So I feel like I have that experience of doing that and being able to get hot and ready to go.”
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