WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle arrived at the University of Virginia late in the summer of 2004 from New Jersey, where he had led Shawnee High to the state title as a pitcher and first baseman.
One of the first teammates he met at Virginia was Ryan Zimmerman, two years ahead of Doolittle and a junior on the 2005 squad.
“He was on a different level than anyone else,” said Doolittle, 31, standing at his locker here at the Nationals spring training complex. “He had two years on me but mentally his approach to everything, it was professional, it was businesslike. He knew what he needed to do for his routine. He had an approach that was really advanced, even for a junior in college.”
Zimmerman was drafted in the first round by the Nationals later in 2005 while Doolittle, who eventually settled on pitching, was taken as the 41st overall pick by the Oakland A’s two years later.
Doolittle and Zimmerman, now the Nationals first baseman, became teammates for the first time since those Virginia days last July. The Nationals acquired Doolittle and fellow reliever Ryan Madson in a deal with the Oakland A’s to aid a ragged bullpen for the stretch drive.
“What an awesome opportunity,” Doolittle noted. “Madson was getting more saves than I was in Oakland. He was getting the majority of the saves opportunities between the two of us, while Santiago Casilla was the main closer.”
But with the Nationals, Doolittle was 1-0 with a 2.40 ERA in 30 games as he posted 21 saves with 31 strikeouts in 30 innings. Madson was 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA with the Nationals last season with one save in 20 games.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Doolittle said of last season. “It is ongoing learning opportunity in this game. You have to have an open mind.”
New Washington manager Davey Martinez certainly does and he has named Doolittle his closer to start the season. The Nationals begin their spring training schedule here Friday against defending World Series champion Houston, with whom they share a Florida complex.
Nationals catcher Matt Wieters was at Georgia Tech when Doolittle was at Virginia and they met in ACC play.
“He is a competitor. You hated playing against him,” Wieters said Wednesday. “He had that mentality he was going to be a bulldog.”
Tim Collins, a fellow lefty reliever, pitched for the Kansas City Royals from 2011-14 when Doolittle was in the American League West with Oakland.
“I have watched a lot of him from the other side of the field,” said Collins, a non-roster pitcher with the Nationals. “Anyone who can pitch with one (main) pitch and be successful is impressive. Sean does have an unbelievable fastball.”
Doolittle relies heavily on that fastball but has been working on a slider.
“I am just trying to tinker and develop it. The change up came a long way for me last year,” he said. “Spring training is a good opportunity for me to work on a slider in game situations. I am trying to find a grip that is close to my four-seam fastball grip.”
“His fastball has always been special,” Wieters said. “His changeup really came around last year. It is not that we will go away from his best pitch.”
Ideally Doolittle wants to use the slider against lefty and righty hitters. He has been working with Derek Lilliquist, the first-year Nationals pitching coach.
“I really enjoy working with him. The early results have been good. He has so much knowledge and experience,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle, who was born in South Dakota, has more ties to Virginia than just his time in Charlottesville. His uncle played for the James Madison University baseball team that made the College World Series in 1983.
But his time with Zimmerman and the Cavaliers launched his pro career.
“He was quiet (but) he was a great teammate. I learned a lot (even though) he never pulled me aside and broke it down for me,” Doolittle said of Zimmerman.
One interesting fact is that Doolittle hit 11 homers as a freshman with Virginia, more than Zimmerman. Many times Doolittle hit fourth while Zimmerman batted third for the Cavaliers. “In his defense I don’t think they pitched to him the same way,” said Doolittle, with a grin. “I definitely benefitted from that. I have that feather in my cap, I guess.”
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