A game that strayed deep into the afternoon – as two teams combined to score 19 runs, throw 321 pitches and play for nearly four hours while the shadows crept across O.co Coliseum on a sun-drenched Labor Day – ended just as abruptly.
Five pitches, five fastballs.
For the first time in nearly a year, left-hander Sean Doolittle was back in his familiar role as the A’s closer Monday. And that was all it took for Doolittle to retire the most difficult stretch of the Houston Astros’ order in the ninth inning, securing a tumultuous 10-9 win, Oakland’s first in September.
Doolittle collected his first save since last Sept. 19 before injuries caused him to miss most of the past year.
“In a way, it felt longer than that,” Doolittle said. “There were a lot of times this year I wasn’t really sure how or if or when I was going to come back. But I’ve really felt that every outing I’ve had so far (this season) has been progressively better.
“I’m still, like, shaking. It was really awesome.”
This season, Doolittle has appeared in only seven games, six of them since returning from a strained shoulder Aug. 23, but Monday marked the first time he had pitched on consecutive days. Manager Bob Melvin said he told Doolittle before the game the A’s planned to lift that restriction, but not the scenario in which he would use Doolittle. The A’s led 8-2 after the sixth inning and 10-6 after the seventh, but Houston closed to within one entering the ninth.
Melvin summoned Doolittle to face right-handed hitters Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Carlos Gomez who the manager acknowledged are “probably not the guys you really want to run a left-hander out there against in the last inning.” But Doolittle retired Altuve and Correa on first-pitch pop-ups to second baseman Brett Lawrie, then struck out Gomez on three pitches, getting him to swing through a high fastball for the final out.
“He felt good; his stuff was good again,” Melvin said. “It’s nice to have him back. We needed a one-run win.”
Catcher Josh Phegley said once Doolittle got outs on his first two fastballs, “We were just going to ride it out. He was throwing harder and harder, it seemed like, every pitch.”
Doolittle’s main approach is attacking hitters with elevated fastballs, using it to generate swings and misses or weak fly balls. When he attempted to come back from injury the first time this season in May, though, his velocity was disturbingly low – in the high 80-mph range – compared to his previous low to mid-90s.
On Monday, all five fastballs Doolittle threw were from 92 to 94 mph. That still is not on the higher end of the spectrum these days, when many relievers throw 95 and above. But Phegley said he thinks Doolittle’s fastball benefits from its action as much as its speed.
“I think it’s his spin rate,” Phegley said, referring to the rotation Doolittle creates on the ball when he releases it. “You think of sinker guys, the ball travels down. But here you have a hard four-seam guy, and it doesn’t seem to come in and drop. It almost seems to ride.
“I don’t believe balls can rise. I haven’t seen anybody that can do it. But I think his stays on a (flat) plane longer, so when you’re kind of expecting the ball to come down into the hitting zone, it seems to kind of ride off your bat.”
Doolittle said being able to generate swings and misses with his fastball, along with pitching on consecutive days and with “no second thoughts in my head,” are positive steps as he plays the final month of a frustrating, injury-marred season.
“After putting in all that work, essentially being on the shelf since January and working really hard to come off of a couple different shoulder injuries, I feel back,” he said.
“The adrenaline was definitely flowing (Monday). It was right up there with my debut, and when I came off the DL, as far as energy level and atmosphere. But this time, I did better at kind of harnessing that energy and using it to help myself. It was awesome.”