PITTSBURGH — It was almost 4 p.m. and, going by the schedule on the wall, the Washington Nationals’ relievers were expected on the field for pregame stretch.
But Sean Doolittle didn’t budge.
He stayed at the end of a leather couch in the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park on Monday. His left hand held a pen instead of a baseball. He stared into a printed-out crossword puzzle, rubbed his temples, then got up to walk the 10 or so feet to his locker. That was it.
This is Doolittle’s reality, at least for now, at least until he feels good enough to get back on the mound. The closer was placed on the 10-day injured list Sunday with right knee tendinitis. The diagnosis could have been arm fatigue. Doolittle has never pitched this much, or been healthy this much in one season, and that finally resulted in a sixth blown save and need for rest.
He did two workouts Monday to strengthen the area around his knee. He’s expected to resume throwing, starting with a light catch, in the coming days. And he’ll otherwise wait, and think, and hope that time off will set him straight for the pennant race.
The Nationals are atop the NL wild card standings. But they have relied on Doolittle all season — sometimes too much — and it’s hard to like their chances if he doesn’t turn it around.
Doolittle has a 7.36 ERA in 15 appearances since the All-Star break. He has allowed 10 home runs this season, four more than his previous career-high, and still leads the league with 46 games finished. Manager Dave Martinez has already repeatedly stated that Doolittle will again be his closer upon returning. Doolittle, always introspective, maybe even more so now, feels the situation is more nuanced than that.
“I mean that’s awesome to get that vote of confidence from your manager. But I have to pitch better if I want to stay in that role,” Doolittle said Monday. “I appreciate him saying that, but the mentality that I’m taking back is we have some really good arms in the back end of this bullpen, and there are a few guys that could slide into that role.”
Those guys are Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland, both acquired at the trade deadline, and 42-year-old righty Fernando Rodney. All three have closed at points of their careers. All three could get a chance to do so in the next eight days. And even if Martinez wants Doolittle back in the ninth inning, where he’s been for the Nationals for parts of three seasons, his recent appearances don’t quite justify that.
The final straw was giving up three home runs in a span of four batters on Saturday. That blew a three-run save and the Nationals eventually lost, 15-14, in 14 innings to the Milwaukee Brewers. The last homer came on a 90-mph fastball, whereas Doolittle’s heat is typically in the mid-90s. While watching video of bad outings, Doolittle notices poor mechanics and, in turn, less “late life” on his fastball. His release point is lower than usual. His extension has shortened. Everything seems off.
Doolittle admitted that he has compensated for knee pain that’s lingered for a while now. He was working through it, and said he felt plenty good enough, until the season went totally sideways. He throws a four-seam fastball 90 percent of the time, and has his whole career, the advantage being the deception and perceived vertical movement. But that’s been virtually nonexistent in the past few weeks. And hitters have teed off.
“Guys have rounds of batting practice that won’t go that well,” Doolittle said of his performance against the Brewers on Saturday. “You know ... homer, double, homer, homer, deep flyball. That’s a good round of five. That’s not me. The team deserves better, and I have to get myself right.”
The 32-year-old is unsure if the mechanics slipped because of fatigue, or if he felt fatigued before the mechanics slipped, or how much of this has unfolded. It will never be totally clear how he went from lights-out to one of the worst stretches of his career.
But since a heavy workload is apparent, and manageable to some degree, Doolittle will sit until Aug. 28 at the earliest. He likened it to being a September call-up ready to help the Nationals for their final push. He quipped that he’ll be fine in the postseason because there are scheduled off days.
Washington has been just fine without him so far, winning games on Sunday and Monday by a combined 21 runs, staying far away from any save opportunities.
Yet Doolittle will be needed moving forward, whether he’s closing or setting up or matching up with lefties in big spots.
As he spoke with reporters Monday — looking back, looking inward, looking ahead — the crossword puzzle was tucked toward the back of a wooden shelf in his locker. It was mostly finished, the blue pen resting on top, but he was saving a few questions for later.
“It’s good. I just needed a break, I’m stumped on a couple of them,” Doolittle said. “A lot of times I put it down for a little and pick it back up and figure it out.”
It was then suggested that that’s a pretty apt metaphor for what he’s working through.
“Yeah,” he answered, allowing himself to crack a grin. “It is.”