9:47am: The Nationals have been on a lengthy and remarkable run in spite of an ongoing bullpen malaise that has shown no signs of abating. While the team is now in strong position, it seems inevitable that its roller-coaster bullpen will be a key factor in any postseason run. The availability — and form — of injured closer Sean Doolittle is therefore of paramount importance to the D.C. org.
Doolittle tells reporters including Byron Kerr of MASNsports.com that he’s working out hard while sidelined with right knee tendinitis. The idea, he says, is to “kick start the engine a little bit” and “develop that trust” in his joint. He has been throwing bullpen sessions and is now readying for a sim game today, which could lead to a quick return. Doolittle says he’s hoping to be activated during the club’s next series.
Of course, when he hit the injured list ten days ago, it seemed Doolittle was in need of a break for multiple reasons — including the knee issue that technically led to the placement. He was being called upon to rescue the Nats with unaccustomed frequency, with his performance clearly suffering.
Doolittle has mostly maintained his arm speed, but has back-slid in swinging-strike rate (from 16.8% in 2018 to 12.1%), home runs (from 0.60 to 1.73 per nine), and exit velocity (from 83.8 mph to 89.8 mph). He has already exceeded his workload from the prior two campaigns, managing only a 4.33 ERA in 52 frames.
The veteran southpaw acknowledged the wider issues in his comments. Doolittle says he has worked on cleaning up his mechanics, allowing him to “stay on top of, and behind the baseball” and to regain “extension” and “deception.” Some time away has left his arm feeling “a lot better,” as well.
That all sounds promising for the Nats, who have opened a nice Wild Card lead but will need a big final month to track down the Braves in the NL East. It’d be a huge boon down the stretch and into a hopeful postseason run if Doolittle is able to jump back into the closer’s seat and regain his 2018 form.