The mystery, for now, is over.
After Sean Doolittle blew fastball after fastball by the Tampa Bay Rays to finish out the A’s 3-0 victory Tuesday, Oakland manager Bob Melvin anointed Doolittle his full-time closer.
It comes as little surprise given how effective the lefty has been of late. Doolittle hasn’t allowed a run over his past nine outings, and, before Tuesday, he hadn’t issued a walk in 20 appearances this season. He finally issued a free pass to Ryan Hanigan with two outs in the ninth Tuesday, snapping his string of 33 consecutive innings without a walk dating back to last season, the second-longest streak in Oakland history.
The decision makes it clear-cut who the A’s ninth-inning man is, and it ends the closer-by-committee approach that hadn’t yielded the best of results to this point.
“It’s pretty cool, I guess,” he told reporters.
An understated response, which is no surprise. The A’s bullpen is a tight-knit and selfless bunch, where no one guy is going to get too excited about being elevated to the most glamorous role.
But this is an important move by the A’s simply from the standpoint that it provides some clarity – to the relievers, to the rest of the team, to the media and to the fan base. The A’s closer situation has been a question mark since the early days of the season, when newcomer Jim Johnson first stumbled in the role and has been struggling to find his way ever since.
It stops the unending questions for Melvin about who he’ll turn to in a save situation. And it should relax Doolittle and his fellow relievers, who can now fall in line behind him and presumably settle into some defined roles.
Though, to hear Doolittle tell it, Melvin has been very good about giving pitchers advance warning on how they’ll be used.
Doolittle said he was told before Tuesday’s game that he’d get the call if the A’s took a lead into the ninth.
“Bob has done a really good job keeping us informed in what our roles are throughout the season, letting us know before a series or before a game, so we know what to expect when that phone rings,” Doolittle said after the game. “Getting mentally prepared (as the closer), it’s pretty much the same routine that I always do getting ready down there. I just do it one inning later.”
But even Melvin has stated that there’s been an element of unknown for his relievers due to the unsettled closer situation.
Will Doolittle hold on to the closer’s role all season? Time will tell. But I’d be surprised if Melvin and the front office don’t give Doolittle some adequate rope to try to settle in to this role, even if he experiences a bit of failure.
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The A’s signed him to a five-year extension with an eye toward perhaps making him their closer of the future. So why not see how he does in an extended audition?
Doolittle’s promotion does, however, lead to another question. What does it mean for Johnson’s role in this bullpen? Johnson was acquired from Baltimore in the offseason, fresh off two 50-plus save seasons, specifically to pitch the ninth. But he’s struggled to find his groove, pitching to a 7.00 ERA and giving up 24 hits and 13 walks in 18 innings. The A’s, as a team, entered Tuesday tied for the American League lead with eight blown saves.
He’s making $10 million, and yes, it’s unorthodox for a guy making that kind of dough (particularly on a low-spending team) to be relegated to a complementary role.
But the A’s (29-16), who have the most wins in the majors, are laying the foundation for a potentially special season. They need to identify one ninth-inning man and see if he can get the job done.
For now, that man is Doolittle.