Old problems were pressing problems. Doolittle, a once-dominant closer, bungled another chance to turn around his sideways start. The Nationals dropped an August game to the Baltimore Orioles, 5-3, because their bullpen fell apart. They tumbled to 4-7 and could be swept Sunday.
“I feel, physically, like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89, 90. It should have some life on it. I should be able to get through an inning,” Doolittle said after the Nationals’ third consecutive loss. He keeps sifting through his mechanics. Upon sitting down for a video conference call with reporters, he noted that he’s looking for answers himself but would do his best with questions.
“I feel terrible,” he added before saying he put Hudson in a bad spot. “I’m letting the team down.”
Long before the meltdown, the stadium was filled with a welcomed dash of normal. It came from Juan Soto, still just 21, lifting an opposite field home run to rev a sleeping offense in the second inning. The blast was his first of the season, the 57th of his career, and tied him for the eighth-most homers before a 22nd birthday. The player he joined — a guy named Mickey Mantle — won three MVP awards with the New York Yankees and wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Yet the offense still scored three or fewer runs for the seventh time in 11 games. It wasn’t nearly enough.
“It’s difficult. Sean probably feels the same, but I definitely feel like we spoiled a pretty good outing from Austin [Voth] there,” Hudson said. “Javy [Guerra] and Tanner [Rainey] coming in and being lights out like they were, I feel like I kind of let those guys down. It’s difficult to try to put any specific words on it.”
Once Voth exited, with five strikeouts in five scoreless innings, Martinez turned to Guerra. The right-hander worked a one-two-three sixth. Rainey, who has been Martinez’s preferred setup man, followed with a spotless seventh. The trouble brewed once Doolittle left the bullpen and jogged toward the mound.
The 33-year-old said he has not felt exactly right since summer training began July 3. His velocity, typically in the low-to-mid-90s, has hovered between 88 and 90 mph. He seems to be tweaking his mechanics by the day. Heading into this one, he had been knocked around in two of his three appearances. And then this one was no different.
Pinch hitter Pat Valaika lofted a low change-up out to left. A pitch later, pinch hitter Pedro Severino rocketed a high, 89-mph fastball out in the same direction. The crack of the bat left zero doubt. Doolittle took one glance, slumped his shoulders and waited to get a new ball from the umpire.
It looked and sounded a lot like the homer Ryan Braun hit against Doolittle here last August, when he gave up four runs while recording one out to blow his sixth save. That night, his fastball was a sitting duck. The next day, he went to the injured list with right knee tendinitis. He had to shut down his arm and mind for two weeks. He still made 63 appearances, his most since 2013, and pitched through the end of October.
But now, in a 60-game season, one that started in the thick of a playoff push, the Nationals can’t wait long for Doolittle. On Friday, Martinez vowed to keep using him in high-leverage situations. He stressed that the Nationals will trust him until the moment they absolutely can’t. He reasoned that Doolittle is one of two left-handed relievers, and he’s needed in big spots along with Hudson, Rainey and Will Harris, who’s on the IL with a right groin strain.
Then, some 30 hours later, the next high-leverage spot was a full-on mess. Doolittle left Hudson with empty bases and a one-run lead. Then Hudson, who had been rock solid to this point, created his own jam, putting two on before Anthony Santander hit the game-winning homer.
“The difference is that last year around this time, when I ended up going on the IL, I felt run down, my arm felt sluggish, my body felt slow, my knee was really bothering me,” said Doolittle, who hasn’t considered shutting down for any period of time. “Right now, I feel good.”
“I’m not going to give up on him. We are going to work it out,” Martinez said. “If I have to pitch him in very low, low situations, we will do that. We need him. He’s a big part of this team.”
Hudson, like Doolittle, stared at the field while ambling off it. He threw 26 pitches to Doolittle’s nine. When added together, the 35 painted a troubling picture with every result holding a bit more weight this summer. Martinez had Hudson warming at the start of the eighth because, after Doolittle’s minimum three batters, he wanted Hudson in a righty-righty matchup with No. 9 hitter Austin Hays.
Martinez said after the loss that Harris will throw again Sunday and be evaluated thereafter. That could be crucial for a bullpen that’s looking thinner than it was supposed to be.
In the bottom of the eighth, Starlin Castro walked, as did Soto, and Washington brought the go-ahead run to the plate. But Howie Kendrick tapped out to the pitcher before Eric Thames struck out swinging. The Orioles’ relievers kept a slim lead intact.
That, right there, was the difference Saturday night.
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