Sean Doolittle was on the hunt in Fredericksburg, looking for lively pitches and confidence.
Throwing next to him at times was young Cade Cavalli, the Nationals' 22-year-old first-round pick from this summer. He was effortlessly throwing 100 mph.
Doolittle also played catch with gargantuan 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge. He, too, threw very hard.
In between, Doolittle tried to shake his brain loose and boil down his mechanics. His sagging velocity has turned 2020 into a pitching debacle for him. His ERA is 15.00. The outs he recorded were often well-struck. He pitched three innings and allowed three home runs.
"I was just trying to get back to being in a place where I felt like I could trust myself again," Doolittle said Saturday. "Came out of the quarantine, physically, I was feeling good. Just my mechanics, my delivery was really, really out of sync. The last couple weeks of summer camp and first couple weeks of the season, I was trying a lot of things to get it to sync up."
They failed. So, he was sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg when put on the 10-day injured list because of right knee fatigue Aug. 13, retroactive to Aug. 11. Doolittle threw less to start. That allowed his knee to rest. It also provided him time to clear his head. Or at least try.
"It was a good idea to press pause and go down there," Doolittle said.
He watched videos of himself from 2018 and 2017. He tried to remember free-and-easy is the best way toward results. In the past, it wasn't just throwing 93 mph, with what seemed to be a rise on his fastball, which led to outs. It was also a deception from his delivery. The clobbering began when both went away.
"There were some dark times, man," Doolittle said. "I'm not going to lie. I was searching. I didn't have a lot of answers. I had a lot of ideas of things I was trying to fix. Ideas about adjustments I needed to make. But my body wasn't cooperating. Certainly not on the timeline I wanted it to.
"A lot of doubt starts to creep in. Stuff that has been second nature for my whole career, eight, nine years, are all of a sudden things I have to think about for the first time in a long time. There's a tendency to try to do more, to overcorrect to over-emphasize certain things when all you want to do is get back to being you. It took a long time to kind of sift through that and realize the biggest thing to do is just to simplify things."
He talked with Brad Holman, the organization's minor-league pitching coordinator. He talked with Davey Martinez, Mike Rizzo and Paul Menhart. While Martinez repeatedly told reporters the team "needs" Doolittle, the two were having heavy conversations on the side.
"The Nats organization top to bottom has been incredibly supportive to me throughout this process," Doolittle said. "I've had several conversations with Davey. Really emotional conversations with Davey that meant everything to me. It's a privilege to play for a manager that cares about his guys like that. Not just about how they're performing on the field, but who they are as people. That kind of support really means a lot to me.
"They helped me through this process and I want to do anything I can to reward that trust and that support."
Doolittle may try to mix his pitches more going forward. He's rarely thrown a changeup or slider through his nine-year career. On average, he's thrown a fastball 88 percent of the time. But he, and the Nationals, are cognizant a change is needed after Doolittle dipped from closer, to high-leverage situations, to unusable. Martinez is adamant Doolittle needs to be "a guy" for the team going forward. Doolittle is hopeful he can just be who he was.
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Sean Doolittle tries to regain confidence and return to normal originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington