SAN DIEGO -- Nationals closer Sean Doolittle knew the Padres’ intentions in the ninth inning Friday night. He knew how to counter those intentions.
The Padres, especially their left-handed batters, wanted to attack his first pitch. And he wanted them to try.
“I throw every pitch like I’m expecting them to swing at it,” Doolittle said. “In that situation, I immediately went up in the zone. I went to where I would go with two strikes.”
There were no first-pitch put-aways on this night. Instead, the Padres rallied for two runs to pull out a 5-4 victory at Petco Park, handing Doolittle his third blown save in 16 chances this season. Light-hitting catcher Austin Hedges had the walk-off hit, a single to left that scored rookie Josh Naylor from second base with two outs.
This time, the difficult part was that he got beat on his own terms.
“I just got beat,” Doolittle said. “Some of the other times where I’ve had some rough ones, I felt like I didn’t have my best stuff. Tonight, I felt like I had pretty good stuff. I thought I made some pitches and gave myself a chance to get the save, to get out of the inning. I just got beat.”
This blown save came following a Nationals comeback from a 3-0 deficit, after they took the lead in the top of the ninth. The Nats scored three runs in the seventh to draw even, then went ahead when Brian Dozier scored on a wild pitch in the ninth.
That put the game in Doolittle’s hands, a save situation against the heart of the Padres’ order. No easy task, but Doolittle had proved up to the challenge of late. After a couple rough outings in mid-May, he had earned five saves and a win in his six more recent outings, getting the win after entering a tie game. He had allowed only one run over 5 2/3 innings in that stretch.
“We went to the bottom of the ninth feeling pretty good,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Up by a run with Doolittle, I’ll take that every day.”
They were feeling even better after Doolittle struck out Manny Machado to start the inning. Up next was lefty-hitting Eric Hosmer. The left-handed Doolittle had limited left-handed batters to a .118/.167/.176 slash line as of that moment.
Knowing Hosmer would be aggressive, Doolittle tried to put his fastball where the Padres first baseman couldn’t do anything with it. This one got a bit too low -- in Hosmer’s “happy spot,” Doolittle said. Hosmer blasted it to the center-field wall for a triple. Now Doolittle had no room for error.
Dangerous right-handed batter Franmil Reyes awaited with power potential. Doolittle struck him out with three straight fastballs. Up came Naylor, owner of only one hit in his seven big league at-bats against lefties.
“To get that strikeout, I felt like I had that killer instinct. I could see my way out of it,” Doolittle said. “Props to Naylor. I went back and looked [on video]. I did exactly what I wanted to do with my fastball. It came right back at me probably harder than I threw it.”
That self-analysis was spot on. Doolittle delivered a 95.3 mph fastball on the first pitch, and Naylor sent it back up the middle at 101 mph for a ground single and a 4-4 tie. The din at Petco didn’t have a chance to die before Naylor surprised the Nats with his first stolen base to get into scoring position as the potential go-ahead run. Then Hedges completed the rally with a line single to left field on a 2-1 fastball, Doolittle’s 15th four-seam fastball in 15 pitches.
“Yeah, I was surprised by the stolen base,” Doolittle said. “But in that situation, your focus is 100 percent on the hitter. It’s a little frustrating. I’m not going to lose sleep over that part of the inning. I just got beat.”
The Nationals have the Majors’ worst bullpen ERA at 6.57. Shaking off a bad beat is nothing new to them. All they have to do is look to the probable starters for the next two games and know that Max Scherzer on Saturday and Stephen Strasburg on Sunday give them a good chance to keep this tough loss from turning into an extended losing streak.
“You’ve got your No. 1 guy out there [Saturday], and that’s always good,” Martinez said. “It was a tough loss, but we’ll come back tomorrow.”