The call came down to the A’s bullpen in the bottom of the sixth, and Sean Doolittle began to stretch and throw. As the inning ended, the left-hander jogged onto the field, the opening notes of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and a loud ovation from the O.co Coliseum crowd greeting his entrance. Doolittle finished his warmup throws, tucked his glove under his bushy red beard and looked into catcher Stephen Vogt for a sign.
From that point, Doolittle admitted, his return to a major-league mound didn’t go quite as he’d envisioned during his nearly three-month recovery from a shoulder strain. Doolittle, summoned to protect a one-run lead Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays, allowed two hits and two walks and was charged with two runs, letting that lead slip away.
That it was still the seventh inning, however, gave the A’s time to mount a comeback, which they did with a seven-run outburst in the bottom of the inning. The resulting 8-2 win allowed Doolittle, the erstwhile closer and a key part of the Oakland bullpen, to analyze his outing objectively without the ignominy of it having cost his team a game.
“Mechanically, and the way the ball was coming out, I was happy with how it felt,” said Doolittle. “The adrenaline was just going really fast, and no matter how much I tried to kind of slow myself down, I was just going a little bit too fast. My location was a little inconsistent. But all that stuff is fixable.”
Tempering the good feeling around Doolittle’s return was the revelation that starter Kendall Graveman could miss significant time with an abdominal injury. Graveman threw six scoreless innings Sunday but left after 84 pitches because of a strained muscle. Graveman was scheduled to undergo further tests Monday, but manager Bob Melvin did not sound optimistic after Sunday’s game. “Might be a little while,” Melvin said.
Sunday was just Doolittle’s second appearance for the A’s this season. He missed the first 47 games with a rotator cuff injury, and when he returned in May, there were clear signs he wasn’t fully recovered. His velocity, which normally tops out in the low- to mid-90s, hovered in the high 80s, and he has acknowledged he wasn’t throwing his pitches with full conviction amid doubts about his health. He made his season debut May 27, then promptly returned to the disabled list the next day with a shoulder strain.
This time, Doolittle said, he felt “more ready” coming back from a strained left shoulder. He was letting his arm go without thinking about it, and the results showed on the radar gun. On his first few pitches Sunday, he hovered between 92-93 mph with his fastball. But the energy rush of being back in a major-league atmosphere was something Doolittle had not been able to simulate during his minor-league rehab outings.
Doolittle walked John Jaso on a high fastball to start the seventh. He got Logan Forsythe to ground out sharply to third baseman Danny Valencia, moving Jaso to second, but then allowed a line-drive single to Asdrubal Cabrera that moved Forsythe to third. Desmond Jennings lofted a sacrifice fly that tied the score, and Doolittle walked Brandon Guyer on his 23rd pitch, leading Melvin to remove him. Rene Rivera then singled off Fernando Rodriguez to score Cabrera, a run also charged to Doolittle.
“First time out there, you’re always worried about that. That’s why you don’t just stick him in the closer’s role,” Melvin said of Doolittle. “But I thought he threw some really good pitches, looked like he had some good life on his fastball at times.”
Melvin said he thought Doolittle was tiring on the walk to Guyer, which is why he took Doolittle out. Though the A’s are without a designated closer right now – an absence that loomed Saturday night when they blew a one-run lead to the Rays in the ninth – Melvin has said the A’s will not put Doolittle back into that role until they feel he’s ready.
“It’s good to get him in a game like that,” Melvin said after Sunday’s victory, “and hopefully we can just increase it from there.”
Doolittle said he has “just got to be a little more consistent getting ahead of guys. … You walk the leadoff hitter, you open Pandora’s box, and anything can happen.”
The bottom of the seventh was another example of that. Rays starter Jake Odorizzi, who had held the A’s to one run on three hits over the first six innings, walked Valencia to start the seventh, inciting a seven-run inning in which the A’s had eight hits and sent 12 batters to the plate.
Brett Lawrie’s RBI single tied the score 2-2, Eric Sogard’s two-run single gave the A’s the lead, and Mark Canha broke the game open with a bases-loaded triple. Over his last 12 games, Canha is batting .435 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs.
“That was awesome,” Doolittle said. “They picked me up and got me off the hook.
“I’ve got to do a better job of managing my emotions, managing the tempo of the game,” the left-hander said about his own rocky inning. “But I guess the biggest thing is, I came out feeling good.”