- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2017

Las Vegas would not provide odds on this conglomeration coming together. An odd blend of a journeyman, a once-retired, surgically-resurrected setup man and metal head former first baseman. It’s too unbelievable when laid out in plain terms. That Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle have arrived in Washington to rescue the Nationals’ bullpen in a season of joy seems more farce when their backgrounds and the timing of their moves are considered.

But, they are in the District, aligned by late-game responsibilities.

Washington’s bullpen needed an overhaul. It came in July when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo shipped one reliever and prospects west and to middle America. The result was three former closers expected to plug the club’s most gaping hole. Distinctly different paths and personal choices brought them to this point.

The reliance on them is immense. Washington has won its division in three of the last five years. It is on a straight path to do so again this season, perhaps even clinching when the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers are in town. The offense is spectacular. The starting pitching possesses two of the top four ERAs in Major League Baseball — that’s without Stephen Strasburg. Two bench options, Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind, are hitting above .300. The bullpen has spent the season as a smoldering crater. The three new guys are expected to fix it.

The unlikeliest

Kintzler was selected in the 40th round. Twice. First in 2003, then in 2004, starting his movement from low-level college pitcher out of Dixie State (Utah), home of the #BlazeForward hashtag, to the major leagues. The process took six years.

By 2005, Kintzler was out of professional baseball. He had not made it beyond the single-A level in the San Diego Padres organization and needed shoulder surgery. He would wind up in Winnipeg for two years playing in the independent Northern League.

Money was scarce. Kintzler tried a construction job. That didn’t stick. He tried selling tickets for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the team he played for. He was on commission. That didn’t work. At one point, he found a financial salve by selling an engagement ring he had purchased for his first fiancee.

Kintzler started giving pitching lessons in a tunnel at the Goldeyes’ stadium, Shaw Park. He found himself giving directions while standing next to a space heater to earn cash.

In the 2009 offseason, he landed a job as a valet at the Wynn in Las Vegas. That paid. He would make runs to the airport to pick up celebrities. He still chased the big leagues in his head.

Kintzler’s stepfather at the time advised him to stop playing games and find a real job. The intent of the advice was at least guidance, if not fully inspiration. Kintzler took ahold of it. The directive made him pursue baseball harder.

“That was pretty nice,” Kintzler said with a smile. “I liked that. I’ll never forget that. He’s not around no more.”

Kintzler signed a minor-league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009. They became the organization that changed his life in celebratory and irritating ways. By the 2013 season, Kintzler had found his way in the major leagues with late, heavy sink on his fastball. He became a proficient setup man in front of Milwaukee closer Jim Henderson. In 2014, he lost that role in part because of injury. In 2015, he pitched in just seven games and needed knee surgery. The Brewers did not re-sign him.

Minnesota took a chance. In May of 2016, Kintzler recorded his first save. He was three months from his 31st birthday. In 2017, he was named to the All-Star Game because of his 2.78 ERA as the Twins’ closer. July 31, he was traded for the first time. After two surgeries, two years in the independent leagues, parking cars and using advice to give up as fuel, Kintzler is in charge of the seventh inning for a team expected to challenge for the World Series. He enters the game to “Lose yourself” by Eminem. The song emphasizes excelling in the one chance provided.

“When I first became a closer, I figured I would only get that one shot to be that closer, so I wanted to live in the moment,” Kintzler said. “I wanted to take advantage of that moment. That’s what the song is talking about.”

He also made a recent purchase. Kintzler treated himself to a Mercedes. He’s now parking his fancy car on a daily basis. He doesn’t have to give the keys to someone else when he exits.

“Nothing’s guaranteed in this game, so I wanted to make sure I had close to six years and I would be left a little more comfortable buying that,” Kintzler said. “I’m still a little skeptical about it. It’s a terrible investment, but I felt like I deserved a new car.”

The retiree

Madson has five children, ages 3-11. The 11-year-old is the lone girl. She is, to use Madson’s term, a “mini-mom” who helps corral her four brothers when necessary. Two of those are 10-year-old twins. Fortunately, for sanity’s sake in the Madson home, they get along with their sister.

When Madson retired after receiving no major-league offers in 2014, he figured he would just be a father. He had a baby at that point, plus everyone else was still at a stage where they could use a lot of help from dad. A baseball season had never allowed that. So, he was “99 percent” sure he would stay retired, taking his 2013 Corvette ZR1 out for an occasional drive when he needed an adrenaline push. Otherwise, he would just admire its curves in the garage, drive his truck and manage the kids.

“After the career I had, I didn’t want to play in the minor leagues at all,” Madson said. “It was the major leagues or nothing. It was nothing, at that point.”

In 2015, the Royals took a chance on Madson, who had not pitched in the majors since Tommy John surgery stalled his career in 2012. He became part of the league’s most effective bullpen. A three-year deal with the Oakland Athletics followed before he was traded to Washington.

Madson’s velocity has come back, as did his curveball. The pitch previously caused him pain. This season, it has been an optimal weapon both in Oakland and Washington. Madson, 36, throws it 17.2 percent of the time now, according to Fangraphs. He has not used it that much since 2006 when he started 17 games and made 50 overall appearances for Philadelphia.

“When I came back in ‘15, I had a good cutter,” Madson said. “I never got to my curveball. When you’re in the bullpen, you just need two pitches, maybe three good pitches, so I was fastball, changeup and cutter. ‘16, cutter kind of went away from me a little bit. So I tried using the curveball again knowing that I had more strength now, new parts in my elbow. Started throwing it again. It started working instantly.”

Of the three, Madson is the lone bald one. He would also come out of the bullpen to no music if he had a choice, which many may think an upgrade for someone who previously entered to a Journey song. Being in Oakland converted him to metal. At least on the field. Madson said he does not listen to heavier rock in his personal life. He’s more of a truck-driving, laid-back California guy. Doolittle approves of the most recent entrance music choice for his friend who is throwing 95-mph fastballs again.

“Now he’s got some metal,” Doolittle said. “Some Chemist. That’s really sick, man. That’s awesome.”

The metal head

Doolittle’s old profile picture from his time at Virginia shows a clean-shaven young man years before a Viking-level red beard would roar off his chin. The secondary photo is of a left-handed first baseman in a crouch. Doolittle pitched for the Cavaliers in addition to playing first base. He was named ACC Player of the Year in 2006 because he did both so well.

He was drafted 41st overall in 2007, 39 rounds before Kintzler was in 2004, as a first baseman/outfielder. Two knee surgeries stunted his movement in the organization. When he was recovered, Doolittle was moved back to pitching. He threw just 25 innings in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors as a left-handed reliever June 5, 2012. Kintzler spent six years as a pitcher trying to reach the major leagues. It took Doolittle just more than two months.

Though, Doolittle’s path has not been without its pauses. His left shoulder has troubled him enough, as recently as this season, that he has made multiple disabled list visits to let it rest and heal. He relies on a dominant fastball and circle changeup to get his outs. His shoulder carries the load with those pitches.

Being traded by Oakland was jarring for him. Doolittle was part of the Oakland organization for a decade. He knew the names of ushers, everyone in the front office, everyone behind the scenes. Doolittle’s community work in the Bay Area made him a finalist for the Roberto Clemente Award, which “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,” in 2016.

“Coming over here, it was like going to a new school,” Doolittle said. “Everything’s different, but after a few days everything started to slow down and I feel really comfortable here.”

This long homestand has helped him feel more settled in the District. He knows where Starbucks and the CVS near his home are. The route to the park has become more clear. He carries a piece of the Bay Area with him when he comes into “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, which is based in San Rafael, California, about 45 minutes west of Oakland.

“I’m a metal head,” Doolittle said. “That’s the music I grew up on.”

The fix

The trio has combined for a 1.57 ERA since arriving in Washington. Kintzler had not allowed a run in five innings. Madson had struck out 13 and walked one in his setup role. Doolittle allowed three of the trio’s four earned runs in one bad outing. Otherwise, he’s given up a run in nine innings as the new closer.

Washington’s brass feels the group has stabilized their largest issue. Beyond their personal results, those three have allowed other relievers, like Sammy Solis and Matt Albers, to be moved up in the game. Solis is working back into his role in the bullpen. Albers helped keep it afloat during the season-long struggles. They are supplemental pieces now.

The responsibility of undoing the past falls to the new trio, who have been pulled into a title chase in an unlikely place after unlikely changes in their lives. Kintzler is far beyond scrapping for tips as a valet. Madson’s kids will have to wait until the offseason to spend long hours with him. Doolittle at least now has a distant chance to swing again in the National League, bringing back memories of his high-end hitting days. Together, they are a radical ensemble charged with changing what October means in Washington.

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