Former Nationals closer Sean Doolittle met with the Cincinnati media last week fresh off signing a one-year deal to join the Reds. The left-hander closed the book on nearly four seasons with the Nats, finishing 10-10 with a 3.03 ERA and 75 saves. He appeared in 147 games for Washington, racking up 163 strikeouts in 142 2/3 innings.
Top in his memory was the Nats wild ride to a first-ever World Series title in 2019. Doolittle spoke about what it took for the Nats to turn that season around, win late in a crazy Wild Card contest against the Brewers and find a way to beat the Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros on the way to the title.
"I don't know if we have enough time to talk about how much we learned,” Doolittle said on a Zoom video call with reporters. “I think it's about coming together as a team, first and foremost. A lot was made of the path that we took to even get a playoff spot. Hitting rock bottom, the team was 19-31 at the end of May. The vibes in and around the clubhouse weren't great. We had a lot of team meetings. We had to hash some stuff out, come together as a group and really find our identity as a team. That's a process that has to happen kind of every year."
Could the Nats formula of 2019 work for another season, like for his new team, the Reds?
Cincinnati broke through in 2020 to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, falling to the Braves 2-0 in a hard fought National League Wild Card Series. Doolittle said the formula for the Nats that season was built on finding away to get out of a big early hole. He said they started to rack up wins because the veterans on the roster had confidence, and a touch of desperation needed, to get the under-achieving group going.
"I'm not saying you have to hit rock bottom, but I'm saying you have to find your identity,” Doolittle said. “You have to know who you are as a team. You have to figure out how you are going to win. It's not always going to be pretty, but you got to find a way to win. For us (and) that team the recipe was starting pitching. That was our strength as a team.”
Of course, the Nats also needed offense. And they got it thanks to the power of Juan Soto, the clutch hitting of Anthony Rendon, and a bench that included grizzled veterans like Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera and Gerardo Parra. Kurt Suzuki and Ryan Zimmerman added to that success, even though they combined to play in only 137 games.
“We got contributions from guys up and down the lineup,” Doolittle said. “It wasn't like one guy was just carrying that team. It's weird to say, as good as (Juan) Soto was that year, as good as Rendon was for us, guys were coming in and stepping up when it was there opportunity to be called upon. Guys really embraced their roles and kind of checked their ego at the door. Part of that was maybe easier because we had such a veteran team that guys were willing to say I don't know how much longer I have left in this game but this is an incredible opportunity we have right here with this group. I just want to be a part of it.
"You had guys that were coming off the bench like Howie Kendrick and really embracing that role. I think it's about embracing the role that you find yourself in and wanting to be the absolute best that you can possibly be in that role. Shoot, maybe you play yourself into a bigger role. But maybe you stay in that role and that provides a lot of value for the club. That provides a lot of value to the clubhouse as well."
Based in that formula of winning is this baseball talent. But of course, Doolittle said, the 2019 Nats were a close knit group too, and that chemistry also played a major role in fighting back from the 19-31 start.
"There's always been this ongoing debate going on: what comes first winning or clubhouse culture?” Doolittle asked. “And for us I think the clubhouse culture came first and guys really embraced the challenge that we had in front of us to turn our season around and came together in a really cool way that I am so proud to be a part of that 2019 Nationals team."
Doolittle admitted when he first arrived from the Oakland A’s in the 2017 trade he was nervous about the unknowns in front of him. But having a couple of relievers in the same boat helped him keep calm.
“The guys that I came over with in 2017 like (Ryan) Madson and (Brandon) Kintzler. They had huge impacts on my career," Doolittle said. "I think it helped that we were all going through that trade and finding our roles in D.C. together. But even going into 2019, you had guys in that bullpen like (Daniel) Hudson and those guys that really helped me, that were a huge part of what we did as a team."
Even though 2020 ended with injuries that slowed his on-field progress, Doolittle reflected on his 3 ½ seasons with the Nats as a time when he got to pitch shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best in the game.
"I will always be grateful for the experience and the time I got to spend in the Nats organization,” Doolittle said. “To be able to watch guys like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg on a daily basis two of the best pitchers of our generation, to see the way they go about their business every day, how they prepare, the things they do behind the scenes to really improve their game year in and year out.
Doolittle will be missed by Nats fans for his contributions on and off the field. His wife, Eireann, and the Doolittle family were a big part of D.C. They embraced the city and the city gave them a big hug back. His contributions to the Nats were crucial for the club to finally break-through in an unforgettable 2019.
"That organization, from the teammates that I had to the staff, the support staff, the clubhouse staff, and the people that worked in the media relations for the Nats,” Doolittle said. “I know I can be a handful and I can be a little high maintenance, especially when it comes to media and off the field stuff, but everybody was always (so helpful). It's hard to put into words. I am incredibly grateful for my time there. It was really very special."
Now it’s on to Cincinnati.