The left-hander went on the injured list in mid-August, officially with right knee tendinitis, and he returned Sept. 1 with a new strategy. His fastball speed was down from about 94 mph to about 92, so he resolved to evolve. He has thrown the fastball just 77 percent of the time this month while bumping up his change-up usage slightly to about 10 percent and more than doubling his slider usage to 13 percent. He hopes the change compensates for the diminished velocity and, in contrast, makes his fastball look as it once did.
“I’m not going to entirely abandon my strength. That’s what got me to this point,” Doolittle said. “But it’s also just being aware that it’s not quite back yet. I’m trying to strike that balance.”
The results are there in limited opportunities: He has faced 18 batters this month, struck out four, walked two and allowed one hit, a single. The Nationals need Doolittle to sustain this success after losing almost all of the seven-game lead they held for a spot in the postseason 2½ weeks ago. They are clinging to the top spot in the National League wild-card race over the Milwaukee Brewers, who pulled to within a game with a win Thursday afternoon, and the Chicago Cubs, who had a chance to do the same Thursday night.
The bullpen has not played an outsized role in this slump, the way it did in April and May, and Doolittle is expected to play a critical role in keeping it that way. He is still one of the coaching staff’s most trusted bullpen arms, and he appears in the most high-leverage situations of any reliever behind Daniel Hudson. But Manager Dave Martinez has emphasized that the Nationals must be cautious with Doolittle after Martinez used him with little restraint earlier this season.
By mid-August, Doolittle had pitched on back-to-back days 16 times (including once in both games of a doubleheader) and with one day of rest another 12 times. Last season, he was used on back-to-back days eight times and on one day of rest nine times.
He threw on multiple days’ rest in each appearance of his return until this week, when he pitched Sunday and Monday. He hiccupped in the second outing, issuing a walk, and watched it become the game-winning run after Hunter Strickland replaced him and allowed a decisive double. Doolittle’s availability each day for the rest of the season will be determined with a conversation between the manager and pitcher.
“We want to keep him healthy for the rest of the year. That’s the most important thing,” Martinez said last week.
Doolittle and Martinez still haven’t discussed his role for the rest of the season. (Martinez has not yet rejoined the team after a medical procedure in Washington this week.) The reliever tried to describe his role now and seemed stumped. A closer? A lefty specialist? A fireman? A hybrid of all three?
Then he burst out laughing and concluded: “Just a ‘be-ready guy.’”
Doolittle grew serious, though, when he considered the bullpen dynamic as the Nationals push for a playoff spot. He called every game now “kind of a must-win.”
“You kind of start throwing roles out the window when you get into that mode,” he said.
The 32-year-old used to go to the bullpen around the fifth inning, but he has started heading out in the fourth. He now readies in the sixth inning every night, just in case. Other than this slight tweak, his routine and mind-set have stayed the same as he has pitched in every other role but the one he started this season in.
Doolittle has finished three games in September, but none was a save situation. He remains confident those moments will return, just like his velocity. His many trips to the injured list in his career have made him a veteran of the build-back process. He sees his approach now like spring training.
“There are some guys that can roll out of bed and they can throw 96 from the very first outing,” he said. “I've just never been one of those guys.”
Doolittle said he threw his fastball at 91 or 92 mph this spring and then, once the regular season hit, once the stands filled and the lights came on, he jumped in his first outing to hit 96 and settled from then on at about 94. He is not sure when his velocity will come back now, so he is sticking with the contingency plan.
“The more we throw [secondary pitches], the more confidence that I have in [them],” he said. “Down the road, maybe the rest of this season, maybe into the playoffs, those can be pitches I can go to.”
Two weeks ago, in Atlanta, Doolittle got a groundout and a strikeout, and only light-hitting Billy Hamilton stood between him and a clean inning. Doolittle, still finding his put-away stuff, threw 11 pitches — all fastballs and all but one up in the zone. Hamilton was late on the last one and swung through it for strike three. That was the old Doolittle, and in a way, it illustrated why the new Doolittle could be more dangerous.
His approach still works, and as he becomes more comfortable with the slider and change-up, he is a threat to drop one at any point throughout an at-bat. This way, he said, hitters can’t be sure what he is going to throw. It might be a fastball, but it also might not.