When Sean Doolittle clutched his side and motioned to the dugout that September night in 2020, the left-handed reliever didn’t realize it would be his final moment on the Nationals Park mound as a member of the home team.
Doolittle had torn his right oblique. Nationals manager Dave Martinez and athletic trainer Paul Lessard trotted out to him. Then Doolittle walked off the field for the last time as a member of the Washington Nationals.
“That was it,” Doolittle said. “That was it for me.”
Doolittle never got a chance to say a proper goodbye. He returned the next day to meet with the team doctors studying his MRI. But when he asked what time to show up the next day to begin rehab, the doctors told him he couldn’t come back, not with the coronavirus protocols in place.
When the season finished, he returned once more to clean out his locker. But all the relationships he had formed in Washington — with the training staff and teammates, coaches and fans — came to a lackluster conclusion. He wrote thank you cards instead of expressing his appreciation in person.
On Tuesday, Doolittle will have a chance to find the closure he missed when his 2020 season came to an inauspicious end. Now, Doolittle returns to Washington with the Cincinnati Reds for a three-game series. He doesn’t know exactly what his return to Nationals Park will feel like, but he expects a wave of emotions upon his return.
“The biggest one will be gratitude,” Doolittle said. “I loved my time with the Nats. I loved everything about it. I loved the way the fans embraced me. I loved the way the guys, especially in the training room, took care of me. I loved the guys on the team and the support we had for each other. So I really think it’ll be mostly just remembering really how special that was, to win a World Series with that group, the oldest team in baseball that year, and the run that we went on.”
Even with his new team, that title run is often brought up. Early in spring training, Doolittle’s new bullpen mates asked him about the 19-31 turnaround — a record that “gets more crazy” to Doolittle as time goes by and he considers how they stormed back to win a World Series.
Cincinnati saw the Nationals for two series that summer — one in June and another in August. Reds players have mentioned to Doolittle that Washington looked like a different team between those two meetings.
“And that’s kind of what it felt like,” Doolittle said. “It was like two completely different seasons, even though the guys on the team, it was kind of the same group. We didn’t really shuffle too much.”
Doolittle also doesn’t know how to answer the most common question he receives: what prompted the change? There were team meetings, but to go from 12 games under .500 to hoisting a trophy remains almost unexplainable to the 34-year-old.
He was relied upon for 22⅓ innings during that postseason run, though, and he remembers leaning on Daniel Hudson in the bullpen for much of that October. The two late-inning arms “were a bundle of nerves” throughout the postseason run, Doolittle said, and they still frequently talk.
“You go through something like a World Series run with a team,” Doolittle said, “you’re kind of bonded for life.”
After posting 29 saves in 2019, Doolittle regressed in 2020. He pitched 7⅔ innings before tearing his right oblique. But Doolittle has rediscovered with the Reds the vertical dip on his fastball that makes that pitch dangerous, and his velocity has ticked up nearly 3 mph again after his down season.
And with those improvements, Doolittle feels a confidence he lost at points in 2019 and 2020. He’s now set to return to Washington with the opposing team’s uniform on. But he’s excited to see the familiar faces he’s missed since leaving the mound that September night, spelling the end of his time in the District.
Maybe he’ll even hear the familiar sound of fans yelling “Doo” as he exits the bullpen and trots to the mound. It’s those yells that helped him settle in Washington in the first place, when he was traded in 2017 from Oakland to the opposite coast. He may have missed those voices most of all.
“It seems silly now, but I was so nervous after I got traded, like the first week or two. It felt like I made my major league debut all over again,” Doolittle said. “But every time I came in the game, they were on their feet, they had the “Doo” chant going. And from there on out, I feel like I developed a pretty special relationship with the fans.”