This could appear to be a quote from Sunday morning, when Doolittle returned from the injured list and, in a small crowd of reporters, announced that he won’t be the Nationals’ closer for the time being. Or it could have been from Sunday afternoon, following his first appearance since Aug. 24, once he got the last three outs of a 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins.
But it’s actually from April 9, after a game in Philadelphia, when Doolittle was pressed about entering in the eighth inning instead of the ninth. And that matters right now, on the first day of the most important month of the Nationals’ season, with their mind set on really making something of 2019. It matters that Doolittle won’t grandstand for a role that, at the moment, he knows he isn’t fit for.
The 32-year-old is both healthy and a diminished version of himself. How that’s possible is the most complicating factor for Doolittle, who expects to pitch in low-leverage situations while he rediscovers what makes him dominant. His fastball was between 88 and 90 mph in a rehab appearance for Class A Potomac on Friday. He went to the IL in mid-August with right knee tendinitis and admitted to knee pain, but it was mostly to rest his arm and mind before the pennant race heats up. An up-and-down season went totally south last month. He had never been used this much — or been this healthy — so late in a season, and that led to overuse and arm fatigue. His mechanics slipped, and his fastball life followed. His ERA was 7.36 in 15 appearances between the all-star break and his trip to the IL.
Still, Manager Dave Martinez maintained that Doolittle would be his closer upon returning. Then the lefty returned and sat down with Martinez, and they decided, together, that shouldn’t be the case.
“For now, probably stuff-wise, I’m not ready to be at the back end of a game,” Doolittle said Sunday. “But I still think I can help the team. Keep guys like [Daniel Hudson] and [Hunter Strickland] and [Fernando Rodney] … I can keep those guys fresh. I can help get them the ball. I can match up against lefties, with an eye on hopefully getting back into one of those roles in the back end of a game at some point here in the next couple weeks.”
The bullpen is typically the egoless part of a baseball team. Relievers have to come in on short notice, they sometimes pitch multiple days in a row with tired arms, and they usually make less than their teammates, often on shorter-term contracts while doing so. Yet closers are the exception to that rule, allergic to anything but the ninth inning, often unwilling to bend into different roles.
And then there’s Doolittle, an exception to that rule, who has been saying all season that he will do whatever Martinez needs. He was ready to when he was the only reliable reliever in Washington’s bullpen. He was ready to again Sunday, when he was open and candid about what he can and can’t offer this club. Changing closers is, in a way, like a football team changing quarterbacks. It’s a narrative. It could lead to grumbling in the clubhouse. But that’s not Doolittle’s style — and it never has been — so Martinez can comfortably plug in Hudson, Rodney or Strickland, three pitchers with closing experience, until it’s time for another switch.
“I’ve been through this process, coming back off the IL, several times in my career,” Doolittle said. “For me, it’s just part of the process. Once you get everything synced up and you get that confidence back in your body, sometimes it takes two, three or four outings for that to come back.”
Now comes a reality that extends beyond Doolittle being good for Washington’s clubhouse: The Nationals are going to need him at his best.
They are going to need him in big spots, in whatever inning, because they aren’t built to succeed without him. The bullpen moves at the trade deadline — netting Hudson, Strickland and lefty Roenis Elías — were not made to patch a ninth-inning hole. They were made to complement Doolittle, who is the closer for the best version of this team. He believes the adrenaline of a major league game could get his velocity into the low-to-mid 90s. His average four-seam fastball velocity was 91 against the Marlins on Sunday. He relies on that fastball, throwing it close to 90 percent of the time, but needs clean mechanics to get the necessary spin, movement and deception on the pitch.
And the Nationals want to get back to relying on him, whenever the pressure’s highest, whenever there are just three final outs to record. They just can’t do that quite yet.