WASHINGTON — Former University of Virginia standout Sean Doolittle was talking about one of his passions, Star Wars, when he was interrupted during a recent interview.
The Nationals closer was mildly annoyed – until he learned Washington had re-signed fellow reliever and Lynchburg native Daniel Hudson.
“No way! Are you serious?” exclaimed Doolittle, a lefty reliever who also played first base at Virginia. “The way it came together was incredible. It has come together very well.”
That news came on the heels of Washington inking standout reliever Will Harris, who had a 1.50 ERA while pitching for Houston last season.
Hudson, a former standout at ODU, had several big saves in the playoffs and recorded the last out in Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros.
Now the bullpen will include Doolittle, Hudson, Wander Suero, Harris and others.
“I hope Nats fans know he is one of the best relievers in all of baseball,” Doolittle said of Harris, 35.
Suddenly there is no sense of letdown for the Nationals, who watched All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon depart via free agency to the Angels a few weeks after the World Series parade in downtown Washington.
After winning its first World Series the team has re-signed several of its core players, coming to terms with shortstop Trea Turner before he was eligible for salary arbitration last week.
The club is also bringing back versatile infielders Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera from the 2019 World Series champion. The Nationals also signed World Series MVP pitcher Stephen Strasburg to a contract extension.
And last week they signed free agent slugger Eric Thames, who had been with the Milwaukee Brewers, and Starlin Castro, a versatile infielder who hit 22 homers last year with the Marlins. Thames was teammates in 2018 with catcher Erik Kratz, a product of Eastern Mennonite University who recently signed with the Yankees.
“He is one of the hardest, most focused workers I have ever played with and in incredibly caring teammate,” Kratz wrote to the News-Record on Monday about Thames.
The fresh bodies in Washington will help since many of the pitchers will head to spring training in a few weeks after a shorter-than-normal offseason.
The Nationals won Game 7 of the World Series in Houston on Oct. 30. Their last game in 2018 came on Sept. 30.
“It has been a much different off-season than normal,” Doolittle said, “but it is a good problem to have. It is a month shorter than it was last year. Physically is one thing; when you go through the month of October with the World Series it is kind of stressful. But it is fun. It is a good problem to have.”
The Astros, on the other hand, were punished Monday by Major League Baseball for stealing signs starting with the 2017 season. General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season by MLB for their role and then fired later in the day by Houston.
Washington pitcher Erick Fedde told 106.7 The Fan, the flagship radio station of the Nationals, this past weekend that if his team had fallen short in the World Series and the Astros had been cheating it would not have lessened the loss.
Now it is time to move on.
Paul Menhart, who took over in May, said he is prepared for his first spring training as the pitching coach of the Nationals.
That is due largely to the fact he attended spring training with the Nationals the past several years as the roving minor league coordinator and before that as the Double-A pitching coach in Harrisburg, Pa. He watched the previous four pitching coaches and how they prepared for spring training.
“I paid close attention to that. I feel comfortable from day one,” he said Sunday. “The guys that we have coming back are pros. They know exactly what they need to do to get ready.”
That includes ace right-hander Max Scherzer, who dealt with several injuries last season. But he feels confident heading to spring training after making just 27 starts last year — his lowest total in more than a decade.
“I knew that there was no long-term damage. I did the whole MRI thing, and that came away clean, too,” he said this past weekend at the team’s annual Winterfest at Nationals Park.
Perhaps one missing piece is veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a former teammate with Doolittle at the University of Virginia. Zimmerman was the first pick of the Nationals, in 2005, and he has spent his entire career in Washington after going to high school in Virginia Beach.
Zimmerman has been plagued by injuries the past few seasons but he had several big hits in the playoffs — including the first homer by a Nationals player in the World Series.
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said he met for about 90 minutes with Zimmerman last week at his office, but no contract agreement was reached.
“Being able to bring back Zim again would be huge,” said Doolittle, a teammate for one season, 2005, in Charlottesville with Zimmerman.
The Nationals don’t appear to be standing pat.
But Doolittle knows the challenge ahead as pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 12 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The first spring training game is Feb. 22 against the punished Astros, who share a complex with the Nationals.
“It is harder even to defend a title,” Doolittle said. But the Nats will certainly try.