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Sean Doolittle, back with the Nationals, feels he has a lot to prove

“I wasn’t happy with how 2020 went and I feel like I have a lot to prove to myself,” Sean Doolittle said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to come back and really be able to show that I still got it in the tank.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Looking around the clubhouse Wednesday, Sean Doolittle read the familiar nameplates: Stephen Strasburg. Patrick Corbin. Aníbal Sánchez. And then Gerardo Parra, way on the other side. Twenty-eight months ago, they rode in a championship parade together, inching down Constitution Avenue to a shirts-optional celebration on the National Mall. But Doolittle wanted to make something clear, for himself and perhaps others, when he spoke with reporters about returning to Washington on a one-year deal.

“It’s not just like a homecoming, like a victory lap 2019 nostalgia tour,” Doolittle said.

To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the Nationals put starter Joe Ross on the 60-day injured list as he recovers from having a bone spur removed from his right elbow.

“I wasn’t happy with how 2020 went, and I feel like I have a lot to prove to myself,” Doolittle continued. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to come back and really be able to show that I still got it in the tank. I took a gap year, you know — went and tried some new things, experimented a little bit, but now I’m back.”

In that gap year, Doolittle signed with the Cincinnati Reds, was designated for assignment in August and plucked off waivers by the Seattle Mariners. He finished with a 4.53 ERA in 49⅔ innings. At times, he struggled with his command, walking 10.3 percent of the batters he faced. Before 2020, when he walked 11.1 percent of batters faced with Washington, he had not passed 6.8 since 2015. At other times, though, Doolittle flashed his old self, touching the mid-to-high 90s and limiting left-handed batters.

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His fastball velocity stabilized to around 93 mph. The Nationals noticed, liking what that might indicate about his arm at 35. When the lockout ended, Doolittle had strong interest from Washington, the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, according to multiple people with knowledge of his situation. He seemed to be the second lefty on some teams’ radars, meaning it helped for Jake Diekman, among others, to sign so the relief market could take shape.

The Nationals were in regular contact last weekend, ultimately offering a major league deal that guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster. As a whole, the bullpen isn’t so different than it was in 2020. Will Harris, signed to a three-year deal before that season, is returning from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Steve Cishek, who agreed to a one-year deal Saturday, replaces Daniel Hudson as the reliable right-handed vet. Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan are still expected to play key roles.

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But Doolittle insisted, over and over, that no one’s trying to replicate the past. The only desired throwback is for him to tap into his stretches of dominance in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“It’s very different,” he said. “We’d be making a mistake if we tried to make it be the same clubhouse that it was in 2019. It’s not. … The chemistry for this year is going to develop organically, and we do have really good veteran leadership in here. So we’ll see what kind of shape that takes.”

Having met so many new people, Doolittle joked that he probably leads Nationals spring training in awkward handshakes. Aside from that handful of familiar veterans — and the young group of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom — much of the club has changed. Doolittle’s catchers, for example, are likely to be Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, both acquired at last year’s trade deadline. Jim Hickey, the pitching coach, and Ricky Bones, the bullpen coach, were hired since Doolittle last appeared for the Nationals in September 2020, ending that tenure with a right oblique strain.

And then there’s Manager Dave Martinez, General Manager Mike Rizzo and Mark Lerner, the team’s managing principal owner, who all hung by the bullpen as Doolittle threw Wednesday. The reliever and Martinez walked arm-in-arm to Doolittle’s morning session. Once it was over, Doolittle greeted Lerner, chatted with Rizzo and headed to cool down. In between, after spraying a few fastballs, he shouted some words that can’t appear in this publication. With Max Scherzer gone, someone has to.

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“It’s like a breath of fresh air when he walks in the room,” said Finnegan, who shared the bullpen with Doolittle in 2020. “He’s just a really happy, smiley guy, great to be around, great teammate and unbelievable player, obviously. He has an insane résumé. So he’s a huge asset to the team.”

As usual, Doolittle’s interview Wednesday was coated with self-deprecation. He chided himself for saying his first strikeout ball is “on display” at his offseason home in Chicago. (“It’s just on a bookcase. … There’s no shrine.”) He seemed to genuinely suggest he had to earn his way back into the team’s core of veterans. But he was serious, no smile or sarcasm, when he dropped his voice to state a goal.

Maybe 10 feet away, Parra and Sánchez smothered Strasburg in a hug, a signature of 2019′s dugout culture. Their laughter nearly drowned out Doolittle’s words.

“To have another chance to put this uniform on … I think even more so now, I realize how lucky I am to have this opportunity to play here,” he said. “I want it really bad. I want to perform for this team and for the fans.”