On Tuesday night at the O.co Coliseum, Sean Doolittle allowed hits to all four batters he faced, and all four would score. In the process, the Oakland A’s 4-2 lead over the Seattle Mariners would vanish, and Sonny Gray’s seven strikeouts over seven innings would be wasted.
“All we’ve got to do is get six outs,” said Doolittle. “They got four runs before we even got one out. Made a mess of that eighth inning.”
“We felt like that was a game we should have won. I don’t know. Just not the right night, not the right time of year to have an inning like that.”
The 26-year-old left-hander, who had never given up four runs in a single game during short career with Oakland, has had quite a few nights “like that” recently. He’s now let in six runs in his last four games, and has posted a 20.25 ERA over 2.2 innings.
Of the most recent poor outing, in which fellow setup man Ryan Cook also struggled, Melvin commented: “We don’t see that often. I think that was surprising to everybody, but you’re going to have some games where you don’t get it done, and that was the case.”
Doolittle’s rough run comes right after he tossed 12 shutout innings over a 12-game stretch. However, he also had another one of these mini implosions back in end of May and beginning of June. Doolittle served up 10 runs over a five-game stretch while lasting just 3.2 innings. He had a 0.78 ERA when that streak started on May 29, and saw his ERA ballon to 4.05 by June 8.
Before that rough patch, though, Doolittle had allowed just two runs in his first 23 outings on the season, and was a dark-horse All-Star candidate.
Doolittle has now been saddled with five losses, which is as many as Bartolo Colon. He’s also had more chances to lose games than anyone else as he has racked up a team-leading 57 appearances.
The lefty has not been good against the Baltimore Orioles, who the team plays over the weekend at Camden Yards. In his brief career against the Orioles, Doolittle has a pitched 4.1 innings and has a 6.23 ERA.
However, the hard-thrower does have six strikeouts, which is a very Doolittle-ish line. The second-year pitcher is hugely reliant on his fastball, which he loves to pump in there. When it gets hit, though, at 96 MPH, Doolittle has already supplied the power.
Could a lack of command be behind the recent struggles?
“That’s the only thing I can think of, “ said Doolittle. “I feel good. I don’t know I can’t think of anything else.”
Doolittle then noted: “Obviously some of the deception is not there, and for whatever reason they’re picking it up. I’m leaving it kind of thigh high over the middle third of the plate.”
Melvin seemed to agree with Doolittle’s breakdown: “As far as Doolittle goes, there were just some balls in the middle of the plate, which he doesn’t normally do.”
Melvin is right. The A’s bullpen, and in particular the back end, has been rock solid this season. When leading after 7 innings the team is 55-3. The skipper loves to talk about his three relievers: Ryan Cook, Grant Balfour and Doolittle.
In a way, the left-hander might be the most impressive of them all. Doolittle, who was originally selected as a first baseman in the first round of the 2007 MLB draft, didn’t even convert to pitching professionally until the tail end of the 2011 season.
Doolittle appeared in one game for the team’s rookie league affiliate that season, then rocketed from Single-A to the big leagues in the span of a couple of months while racking up 48 strikeouts in 25 minor league innings. Doolittle made just a two-game cameo with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats before arriving in the A’s bullpen in the first week of June.
That’s a fairly remarkable rise, perhaps somewhat explained by the fact the Doolittle was an excellent college pitcher. At the University of Virginia, Doolittle briefly held the record for most wins in school history.
However, that lack of minor league seasoning could also play against the young reliever, who has reeled off 108 strikeouts in his first 101.1 innings for Oakland.
The A’s need help. The team could use an extra bat, and perhaps an extra arm in the rotation. So, perhaps now is not the time to worry too much about the bullpen, a unit that has been dominant for long stretches of the season.
The teams that make the playoffs and go the furthest, though, tend to have great bullpens. Whether or not Doolittle can return to his lockdown form will go a long way in determining how good this bullpen proves to be.
On Tuesday night, the bullpen was awful. Then again, so was the entire team. The left-hander’s night, and also the team’s might have ended quite differently if Yoenis Cespedes had been able to hold onto a hard hit ball off the bat of Henry Blanco. The left fielder did well to track down the drive, but after taking just a step or two the ball squirted out of his glove.
“At the end of the day I threw the ball right down the middle to a good fastball hitter, and he turned on it.”
Doolittle is going to need to avoid doing that going forward. Looking back at his 2013 season, there’s reason to believe that Doolittle just might do so.
Adding together his two rough patches at the beginning of June and August, Doolittle allowed 16 runs over nine games. In his 48 other appearances in 2013, Doolittle has let in just six runs.
That’s filthy. That’s also not only the kind of production the has come to be expected of Doolittle, but also exactly what the team needs from the reliever. If Doolittle can return to that level, it will go a long way in determining the success of the back end of the bullpen, and by extension, if the A’s will make it back to the playoffs.