WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle is telling his celebrity story.
If you follow Obi-Sean Kenobi on Twitter, you might have heard it before. But Doolittle, standing in the middle of the Nationals’ clubhouse one morning during spring training, is happy to tell it again.
This offseason, the veteran reliever had just finished making an appearance at a team event in D.C. and was at the metro station on his way home when a group of kids stopped him and gave him the whole “you know who you look like?” business. Finally, thought Doolittle, I’m starting to get recognized.
It made sense. After all, Doolittle was a big deal in the District last season. After joining the Nats right before the trade deadline in a splashy swap, he grabbed the closer’s role — a role that, over the past few years in Washington, has proved slippery — and never let go. He converted 21 of 22 saves for the Nats during the regular season, then pitched three times during an epic, five-game playoff series against the defending champion Cubs. Between the high-profile job and the highly recognizable beard and glasses, of course people knew who he was.
Then came the punchline.
“Seth Rogen,” one of the kids said.
That Doolittle doesn’t mind reliving the embarrassing moment, right there in the middle of the locker room for all to hear, is proof positive of just how at peace he is these days.
“Mentally,” he said, “I’m in a good spot.”
And why wouldn’t he be?
On Jan. 13, Doolittle — who eloped with his girlfriend, Eireann, the day after the 2017 season ended — closed the deal with a wedding ceremony at Chicago’s Bridgeport Art Center. Three days later, he and his bride closed on their first home, a four-bedroom Dutch colonial in the Windy City suburb of River Forest. One month and one day after that, on Feb. 17, Doolittle closed the door on the closer’s job when new skipper Davey Martinez officially announced that the 31-year-old lefty would be the Nats’ ninth-inning guy.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a whole lot of closing in a very short time. But that’s what guys like Doolittle do.
Yes, we eloped in October but yesterday we bribed a bunch of people with food and drinks to come celebrate with us and say nice things to us and it was the best. day. ever. (📷: Sullivan and Sullivan) pic.twitter.com/rKHyenx5Qo
— Obi-Sean Kenobi (@whatwouldDOOdo) January 15, 2018
“He’s got closer mentality,” said Martinez, who spent the past three seasons as Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Chicago and was in the opposing dugout last fall when Doolittle tossed three shutout frames over three NLCS outings. Despite the endgame attitude, Doolittle had never been The Closer.
Sure, he had 22 saves as a closer (not The Closer) for Oakland back in 2014, but that was only because Jim Johnson lost the job after getting lit up and only after Luke Gregerson didn’t do much better. Heading into 2015, Doolittle would’ve been The Closer, except he missed the first four months of the season with a shoulder injury, and by the time he got back, the gig belonged to Tyler Clippard. In 2016, Doolittle supposedly won the gig coming out of Cactus League play, but he quickly coughed it up and spent the remainder of his time with the A’s primarily in a setup role.
Now, for the first time in Doolittle’s career, right from the jump, the job is his. His, his, all his. No spring training competition. No committee. For the first time in his life, he’s The Closer. Not that those who know him are surprised.
“He’s always had that raw talent,” said hurler Tommy Milone, who was with Oakland in 2012. That’s when Doolittle, a UVA product who was drafted as a first baseman but converted to pitcher in 2011, made his big-league mound debut for the A’s.
Six years later, Milone finds himself in Nats camp, where he and Doolittle have been regular catch partners. In other words, he has a front-row seat for one of baseball’s most befuddling fastballs.
“It comes out like he’s not trying to throw that hard,” Milone said, “but it jumps at you right toward the end.” As a result, Doolittle’s four-seamer, which averaged 95 mph last season, good for 66th among relievers, plays up — way up.
“It’s the best lefty fastball I’ve ever seen,” said Nats reliever Ryan Madson, a 12-year vet who pitched in Philly alongside flame-throwing southpaw Billy Wagner. Now entering his third season as Doolittle’s teammate, Madson — who came to D.C. from Oakland last summer in the same deadline deal — was there in 2016, when Doolittle reeled off eight straight scoreless appearances in which 101 of the 102 pitches he threw were heaters.
Two years later, Madson goes into full SMH mode at the mere mention of Obi-Sean Kenobi’s cheese. “The whole stadium knows he’s going to throw a fastball, and hitters still can’t get on top of it.”
The scary thing is, now that Doolittle has been anointed The Closer and doesn’t have to spend spring training trying to impress anyone, he can afford to tinker with his repertoire. He says he wants to continue honing his changeup and claims to be working on his slider in hopes of having another reliable offering that could help keep hitters off-balance and avoid the foul-a-thons that have plagued him.
“There were times last year where I’d put up a zero, get the save and we’d be high-fiving on the mound, but I threw like 25 pitches because I get in battles with guys,” he said. “I’m still dictating the at-bat, they’re not taking great swings, but it takes me 10 pitches to dispose of guys sometimes. If I can have something to come off of the fastball and give them something to think about, over the course of a long season that could really help a lot.”
Who knows? Maybe Doolittle has absolutely no intention of using the slider. Maybe he’s just acting — channeling his inner Seth Rogen and throwing up a smokescreen to make his smoke scream even more than it already does. Maybe Obi-Sean is simply using Jedi mind tricks to get inside hitters’ heads.
As for his own head, it couldn’t be any clearer now that he’s finally The Closer.
“I feel really comfortable in that role,” he said. “I feel really confident in that role.”
If everything goes as planned, it could be his best role since “Pineapple Express.”