MLB playoffs: Nationals' Sean Doolittle has turned back into a bullpen stud after knee injury
The Washington closer has been back to his old self since returning from the IL
ST. LOUIS -- The bullpen of the Washington Nationals, a reliable source of handwringing for much of the season, is of late much less of a worry.
In part that's because of the deadline addition of right-hander Daniel Hudson, who's been a dominant and stabilizing bullpen arm for the Nats since then. Hudson, it should be noted, is back in that bullpen for NLCS Game 2 and beyond after missing the opener to attend the birth of his daughter will full blessing from the team.
The other reason is that lefty Sean Doolittle is looking like his peak self of late.
Doolittle went on the IL with right knee inflammation in the middle of August, and preceding the roster move were some uncharacteristic struggles on the part of the Washington closer. Largely because of that knee injury and the way in which it likely altered Doolittle's mechanics, he saw his ERA rise from 2.93 to 4.33 in roughly two weeks.
Doolittle, though, was given time to heal, and then came back seemingly restored to his prior settings. In his nine regular season appearances after returning from the IL, Doolittle pitched to a 2.25 ERA with seven strikeouts against two walks. Counting his four-out save in Game 1 of the NLCS, he's got a 1.93 ERA with four strikeouts and no walks in four 2019 playoff appearances. It's a limited stretch, yes, but it's vintage Doolittle over that limited stretch. During the postseason, he's twice proved capable of locking it down for more than three outs in a game.
Doolittle's resurgence of course isn't lost on Nats manager Davey Martinez.
"Yeah, you know what, we tried -- after he came off the IL we were building him up to get to this point," Martinez said of Doolittle on Saturday before Game 2 against the Cardinals. "I said this all year that in a perfect world he's our closer, he's done it, he understands it, he knows the role, he's good at it. But we wanted to build him up. And now he's throwing the ball about as best as I've seen him throw the ball pretty much all year. His fastball is good, spin rate's good, he's a huge spin rate guy, and he's using other pitches very well."
The underlying indicators back up what Doolittle's done and what Martinez is saying about it. Doolittle in recent outings has seen his best fastball velocity since the middle of the 2018 season, and he's achieved that while generally maintaining the speed of his changeup. That, in turn, has increased the velocity separation of his changeup and fastball, which is a desirable trend for the pitch that's become Doolittle's second-most used offering. Speaking of the changeup, Doolittle since getting healthy has also increased the drop on the pitch. That's important for a lefty reliever who's more than a platoon-advantaged specialist, and it's no doubt why Martinez has sustained confidence in Doolittle to get big outs regardless of which batter's box is occupied.
Washington starters go deeper than most, and with the frequent playoff off-days, bullpen depth for this particular team isn't quite as necessary. After throwing just 15 pitches in the NLCS opener, Doolittle is probably available for more big moments in Game 2, and that's of course in addition to Hudson's return. Right now, the Nationals' bullpen is in playoff fighting shape. Not so long ago, that seemed an unlikely thing to say.
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