Simulated games for Nationals pitchers are becoming nearly as important as the real thing.
Nearly two weeks after ace starter Max Scherzer pitched in a nearly-empty stadium, closer Sean Doolittle is expected to do the same thing in a simulated game Wednesday before the Nationals host the Orioles.
“That is kind of the final hurdle. I am looking forward to it and getting feedback from hitters standing in,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle has been on the injured list since Aug. 18 with right knee tendinitis. He was eligible to return to the active roster Tuesday, but manager Dave Martinez said he hopes Doolittle can be activated sometime this weekend during a home series against Miami.
“Moving forward, Doolittle will be our closer,” Martinez said. “He is feeling a lot better. We would love to get Doolittle back. The biggest thing is getting him right.”
Scherzer (9-5, 2.41 ERA), slated to start Wednesday against Baltimore, threw simulated games Aug. 13 and Aug. 17. He then made his first start in nearly a month on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
In the simulated game for Scherzer, a perfectionist with attention to detail, he was able to pitch as teammate Gerardo Parra stepped into the batter’s box to his real game walkup music — the viral kids’ song “Baby Shark.”
The 32-year-old Doolittle doesn’t know how far he will go to create a realistic atmosphere.
“Try to make it as game-like as possible,” Doolittle told The Washington Times.
Doolittle said he expects to throw about 35 pitches Wednesday, including those warmup tosses in the bullpen before he takes the mound. He is not sure which batters he will face, but one possibility is reserve catcher Spencer Kieboom, who got called up from Double-A Harrisburg on Tuesday as reliever Hunter Strickland went on the paternity list.
Doolittle last pitched Aug. 17, when he gave up four runs – including three homers – in the ninth while retiring just one batter against the Milwaukee Brewers.
This month, he has 12.86 ERA in eight appearances. For the season, he is 6-4 with a 4.33 ERA and 28 saves.
Doolittle has thrown three bullpen sessions since going on the injured list.
“To be honest, I kind of needed the mental break,” he said. “That two-week stretch there I was looking for answers. I was trying to make adjustments and none of them were working. You are searching for answers and not sure where they were coming from.”
“To hit pause and get my body right, it helps me a lot mentally as well,” he added. “I am in a much better place right now. I can drive down the mound and land on (my knee).”
The lefty was traded to Washington during the 2017 season and had 21 saves down the stretch as the Nationals won the National League East title. Doolittle had a 1.60 ERA with 25 saves last season for the Nationals, though he also spent time on the injured list with left big toe inflammation.
He has been working out twice a day this month, focusing on both upper- and lower-body exercises, to get ready for a return to the active roster.
“I am sure part of it is putting my body in a better position to throw,” Doolittle said. “I think it is more of an efficient delivery that is making (the ball) come out cleaner. Rather than sitting around and letting (the knee) rest, I think the best way to handle this is kick start the engine a little bit.”
Washington was 73-57 before Tuesday’s game and led the NL wild card race. The Nationals scored 104 runs in their last 11 games — the most in Montreal/Washington franchise history and the best such run in the majors this year.
Lefty reliever Roenis Elias (hamstring), also on the injured list, threw a bullpen session Tuesday and could also throw in a simulated game Wednesday, according to Martinez.
Having Doolittle back — days after the return of Scherzer — can only aid the red-hot Nationals.
“Everybody is doing their part,” Martinez said.
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