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In his final Zoom video conference call with reporters on Sunday, Sean Doolittle spoke about his four seasons with the Washington Nationals mostly in the past tense. He paused before answering questions, offering thoughtful and reflective responses as he sat in his rental house in front of an iPad placed on top of a pizza box.
Almost a year ago, the Nationals were dancing and partying their way to a World Series victory. This year, in a pandemic shortened 60-game season, the Nationals finished 26-34, which tied with the New York Mets for the worst record in the NL East. Doolittle has not played in weeks after suffering an oblique strain during a game and could not be with his team on Sunday as the Nationals beat the Mets, 15-5, in the final game of the season.
“Life comes at you fast,” Doolittle’s wife, Eireann Dolan, joked on Twitter, posting a photo of Doolittle celebrating in the Nationals clubhouse last season with a lightsaber and another of him looking forlorn at his makeshift pizza box desk.
Doolittle, who turned 34 on Saturday, is set to become a free agent and doesn’t know if he’ll return to D.C. next season. Other free agents that played on the Nationals’ World Series championship team include Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, Aníbal Sánchez, Michael A. Taylor, and Asdrúbal Cabrera.
World Series hero Howie Kendrick recently told reporters he was weighing whether to return to the Nationals next season or retire from baseball.
Getting through the bizarre MLB season that required regular COVID-19 testing, playing in empty stadiums, and protocols that limited interaction with teammates outside of the games, has made players like Doolittle appreciate what the team accomplished last year even more.
“Especially since my injury, I found myself focusing on, rather than uncertainty of free agency and what’s going to happen next, just how lucky I was to be here for the last four years and really how cool winning the World Series really was,” Doolittle told reporters before Sunday’s game. “When you look back on that experience now after going through this weird 2020 season, you’re reminded of how important fans are to this game, and the impact that they play on every game, and the way they’re able to help you rise to the occasion and elevate your game, and we’ve absolutely miss that aspect of the games, not having fans in the stands.”
After some reflection, Doolittle said that “it was absolutely a worthy endeavor for us to put a season on this year,” but added that the negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association “were focused on the financial aspects of the unique realities of the season rather than the health and safety aspect of it.” He pointed out that lots of team had injuries, including the Nationals.
Last month, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg’s season ended after he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel neuritis in his throwing hand.
But the Nationals did show flashes of talent and ended the season winning seven of their final nine games. Juan Soto batted .351 and, at 21, became the youngest player to win the National League batting title in Major League history (since 1900), after missing the first eight games of the season due to a controversial positive COVID-19 test. On Sunday, Trea Turner hit a Grand Slam in the bottom of the third inning against the Mets for his 12th home run of 2020. This season, he became one of the best shortstops in the league.
“I definitely think you haven’t seen the best of the Juan Soto yet, that’s for sure,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after the game. “He’s going to continue to get better in all aspects of the game. You’re talking about not only a potential MVP this year, but for many, many years.”
Martinez, who agreed to a multi-year contract extension just a few days ago, looks at the core group returning next year and believes that the team will be built to win in 2021.
“There’s definitely going to be some different pieces, but I look our core group and what our core group has done in the past and what they can do in the future,” he said after Sunday’s game. “We still got some really good pitching, our bullpen shaped up this year, we got some young players you saw that with some opportunity that they played really well. So all those things, I really believe this winter, Mike [Rizzo] and I will sit down, we’re going to assess what our necessities are, what we need, and we’re going to build this team to win again in 2021.”
The team’s best player agrees.
“I think we’re going to be good,” Soto said. “We have a couple good hitters in the team, we got defense, we got the pitching, this is the most important thing. I think we just need a couple pieces … and then I think we can make it all the way again.”