Nationals plan to lighten Sean Doolittle's workload

Chris Lingebach
August 14, 2019 - 6:02 pm

The Nationals plan to curtail closer Sean Doolittle's workload to keep him strong down the home stretch of the season, General Manager Mike Rizzo says.

Doolittle's already pitched 50.2 innings in 2019 and is on track to eclipse a career-high of 69 innings pitched in 2013, when he was 26. The problem is there are still 43 games to play.

Doolittle is already showing signs of being overworked, blowing a save in a critical division game against the Mets last week and then nearly another against the Reds on Monday. The pitcher readily admitted this week he hasn't "really amassed this kind of bulk in several years," which has resulted in him feeling "a little bit sluggish" at times.

During his weekly 106.7 The Fan appearance, presented by Burke & Herbert Bank, Rizzo was asked if he envisions a scenario in which the bullpen roles change, should Doolittle continue to struggle.

"I see Sean as our closer," the GM answered matter-of-factly. "When he's able and ready and in a closing situation, I think we'll pitch him. We're able to be much more diligent with him and to schedule his days off much more willingly right now, because we have so many more options."

Tuesday's win over the Reds presented such a scenario. With the Nats leading 3-1 and reliever Wander Suero waning, skipper Dave Martinez elected to go with Daniel Hudson from the pen. A key trade deadline acquisition, the 32-year-old escaped the eighth inning cleanly and returned to the mound to slam the door shut in the ninth. That wasn't an option until two weeks ago.

"We think that Sean is an All-Star closer. He's got great stuff. He's got the attitude and fortitude to pitch the ninth inning," Rizzo said. "He's shown that he can do it in the big situations. So he's our ninth inning guy, but Davey's got many, many more options to go in different routes to finish out games when Sean is down.

"He has been taxed. He has been worked. We have to be careful. Going into the season we knew that he's a maintenance guy that we have to maintain. He hasn't been on the disabled list this year, thank God. He's a guy that's been on the disabled list for the last couple years, which has given him a break during the season to finish off the season strong."

"So he hasn't had that break this year, so we're going to have to really manage his workload and be really smart with him," Rizzo continued. "After the trade deadline, it's given Davey the opportunity and the options to do that, so I think that you'll see us be very much more diligent with the way we utilize him and his workload. And it'll make him stronger at the end, when we need him."

Rizzo also commented on the resurgence of Joe Ross as a starter. The 26-year-old right-hander is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and after a rocky first half of the season – in which he was shipped back and forth between the minors and majors – Ross has turned out three straight dominant starts for Washington.

Ross allowed just one run over those 18 innings and has gone deeper into the game in each of the three starts.

"He was a guy before Tommy John that we traded for, we really were excited about," Rizzo said. "He threw the ball extremely well. Then, you know, he broke and we fixed him. We have our Tommy John protocol and we stick to it very, very diligently. He's kind of got to check off all the boxes."

"Early on when his ERA was in the nines, he checked off the boxes that he was healthy, his velocity came back, and the last thing that always comes with these Tommy John recoveries and rehabs is the location of the pitches, the touch and feel of the strike zone," he said. "We felt that once he got that – and it sometimes doesn't happen until the following season – that we would have the old Joe Ross back, which is a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher."

"Yes, we were patient with him, and yes, teams did call about him," he continued, "because other teams, they're trying, too, and they're very smart people and they see the same thing we did. But we were patient with him and he's a guy that we see in our future plans for a long time to come. A lot of credit goes to Joe for not throwing in the towel when we send him back down to the minors.

"He worked on his craft, and a lot of credit goes to our Major League pitching coach in Paul Menhart, who had been with Joe through his minor league days as our minor league coordinator. They went back to the film room, they looked at some old video of Joe, how he was pre-injury, and kind of made some tweaks to his delivery."

"Paul kind of adjusted where he stands on the rubber pre-pitch and post-pitch, and his alignment and arm angle and that type of thing," Rizzo went on. "We wanted Joe to go back to being the athlete that Joe Ross is on the mound, and utilizing his athleticism. So higher leg kick, utilizing his lower body more. Now it's coming out 95, 96 down in the zone with movement.

"They adapted a slower curveball to go with his hard fastball, hard slider combination. I think with Joe and with Erick Fedde, that you're seeing guys that are on the rise and the guys that we thought they were gonna be when we drafted and traded for each of 'em."

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