ARLINGTON, Texas— The way Sean Doolittle sees it, he didn’t have much of a choice but to resume pitching in 2011. He had missed all of 2009 and 2010 due to injury, and with his future as a position player in professional baseball uncertain at best, he decided to return to the mound and sort of reinvent himself.
But it wasn’t like pitching was new for the now-26-year-old southpaw. He had done so at Virginia, going a combined 19-5 in his sophomore and junior years. Just over a year after resuming his pitching career, Doolittle made his Major League debut with Oakland on June 5, 2012 as a member of the A’s bullpen and through 21 games pitched this season he is 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA and 21 strikeouts, proof that he has found his niche as a setup man for Oakland closer Grant Balfour.
“The pitching came back a lot faster than I or anybody expected it to, but when I made the switch I didn’t make it thinking that this was going to be my ticket to the big leagues,” he recalled. “I made it because I was so far at the end of my rope with the injuries that I just wanted to try to extend my career. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to do what I’m doing now and I really feel like I’ve found what I’m supposed to be doing, really found my niche and my role.”
Doolittle earned his eighth hold of the season in a 1-0 win at Texas on May 21. He entered the game in the eighth with the A’s clinging to a slim lead and struck out two of the four hitters he faced in a 14-pitch outing that epitomizes how well he’s performed in 2013.
“Well, he didn’t strike everybody out. That’s what he usually does, is strike everybody out,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin joked. “He’s been really good. The numbers that he’s put up are indicative of the way he’s pitched.”
The reliever can sometimes enter the game in the seventh inning, in the eighth inning or sometimes not at all. But no matter the situation or opponent, he’s always prepared for his next outing as a member of one of baseball’s top bullpens.
“So far, that [setting up for Balfour] has been my role. Somehow [Ryan] Cook and I split up seventh and eighth inning based on matchups, workloads, who’s pitched recently. We’ll split up the seventh and eighth one way or another,” Doolittle said. “Sometimes I go the seventh. Sometimes he goes the eighth or vice versa. But that’s what it’s all about, back end of the bullpen, one-run game on the road. Those are the situations you want to be in.”
As one of six UVa products currently in the majors, the talented lefty takes great pride in coming from an accomplished program not just in the ACC but in the entire college baseball landscape. He even credits his time in Charlottesville for helping build a solid foundation that allowed him to later experience success at the professional level.
“There’s a lot of pride that comes with being a product of that program. They have a reputation of doing things the right way. When guys graduate from that program and get into pro ball, they’re ready to go,” Doolittle said. “It’s a very disciplined program, but they treat you like men and I think when you come into professional baseball, mentally you’re in a better position than some of these other guys.”
And he is also quite proud of the fact that he is part of a select group of ex-Wahoos who helped set UVa baseball on its current course as one of the nation’s top programs.
“You just look at the way the program has taken off under that coaching staff. Now they’re in the top 10 every year. You see them on ESPN, playing in Super Regionals and going to Omaha. To be a guy that was there in the early stages of that process, it’s really, really gratifying to see them in the position they’re in right now,” Doolittle said.