Within five minutes Monday afternoon, Sean Doolittle chatted with Ryan Zimmerman, received a fist bump from Victor Robles and hugged Nelson Cruz by the cafeteria in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. It was, after all, Doolittle’s 36th birthday, but he does have a deep-seated connection with each of those guys. He and Robles helped the Nationals win a title in 2019. Same with Doolittle and the now-retired Zimmerman, though they also played together at the University of Virginia, when Doolittle was a hitter and they batted in the middle of the order.
And Cruz, now his teammate, is more familiar as a rival in the box. Doolittle set down Cruz for his first career strikeout in 2012. They have squared off 13 times, Doolittle getting the best of Cruz aside from a walk and a homer.
These are the details of a life in baseball. This is the life Doolittle, recovering from an internal brace procedure on his left elbow, is not quite ready to give up.
“If this was happening to me when I was 25, 26, whatever, theoretically I’d still be under team control, I’d still know where I was going to be next year,” said Doolittle, who opted for the season-ending surgery in July and will be a free agent this winter. “And you know, that part of it is a little bit nerve-racking. But it just came down to … if I want to continue my career and I want to pitch another two, three, four more years, I think I can do it. I want to do it, at least. I want to try.”
Retirement is a scary word, especially in the finite job of throwing a baseball. But after signing a one-year deal with the Nationals last spring — and after retiring all but one of the 17 batters he faced in April — Doolittle feels he has some innings left. He opted for the internal brace procedure over Tommy John surgery because of the speedier recovery. He’s tentatively scheduled to start throwing in the third week of October, slightly ahead of when he would in a normal offseason.
If that goes well, bullpen sessions are penciled in for mid-to-late January. If those go well, he hopes to show teams video and data that illustrate progress. And what he hopes more than anything is that the Nationals call again.
“That would be amazing. That would be best-case scenario, for sure, for so many different reasons,” Doolittle said at his locker Monday. “I love playing for [Manager] Davey [Martinez]. This is home for us. The medical staff and physical therapists, we put so much effort into this rehab, and it’s going really well post-surgery. I kind of want to stick with them and see it through, and we came back here initially ’cause I wanted to be here and I wanted to see it come full circle, so …
“I really would like a do-over. I realize that there’s a lot that I have to do on my end to even have that be a possibility. But hopefully January or ahead of camp in February, I can show them that I’m healthy and come in and compete for a spot.”
Last March, in the post-lockout scramble for free agents, the Nationals were drawn to an uptick in Doolittle’s four-seam fastball velocity. They thought he could lead an inexperienced bullpen and potentially be flipped at the trade deadline for a prospect or two. In a minuscule sample, he was headed toward attracting clubs in need of a left-handed reliever for the stretch run. His arm just didn’t cooperate.
Working with Seth Blee, a physical therapist for the Nationals, Doolittle has advanced to throwing and slamming medicine balls. Soon he will begin single-hand plyometrics, gearing that stage of the rehab process to his pitching motion. Next week he will visit Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent the internal brace procedure, for a scheduled check-in with his surgeon. Then he’ll wait to grip the seams and throw.
“He doesn’t want to finish his career the way this is right now,” Martinez said. “… Before he got hurt, he was doing unbelievably in a role that was very important to us. So hopefully he can come back, and we’ll see what happens next spring.”