Dif­fer­ent paths led trio to D.C.

New­com­ers over­haul, ex­pected to fix be­lea­guered bullpen

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Las Ve­gas would not pro­vide odds on this con­glom­er­a­tion com­ing to­gether. An odd blend of a jour­ney­man, a on­cere­tired, sur­gi­cally-res­ur­rected setup man and metal head for­mer first base­man. It’s too un­be­liev­able when laid out in plain terms. That Bran­don Kint­zler, Ryan Mad­son and Sean Doolit­tle have ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton to res­cue the Na­tion­als’ bullpen in a sea­son of joy seems more farce when their back­grounds and the tim­ing of their moves are con­sid­ered.

But, they are in the District, aligned by late-game re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Wash­ing­ton’s bullpen needed an over­haul. It came in July when Na­tion­als gen­eral man­ager Mike Rizzo shipped one re­liever and prospects west and to mid­dle Amer­ica. The re­sult was three for­mer closers ex­pected to plug the club’s most gap­ing hole. Dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent paths and per­sonal choices brought them to this point.

The re­liance on them is im­mense. Wash­ing­ton has won its divi­sion in three of the last five years. It is on a straight path to do so again this sea­son, per­haps even clinch­ing when the mighty Los An­ge­les Dodgers are in town. The of­fense is spec­tac­u­lar. The start­ing pitch­ing pos­sesses two of the top four ERAs in Ma­jor League Base­ball — that’s with­out Stephen Stras­burg. Two bench op­tions, Howie Ken­drick and Adam Lind, are hit­ting above .300. The bullpen has spent the sea­son as a smol­der­ing crater. The three new guys are ex­pected to fix it.

The un­like­li­est

Kint­zler was se­lected in the 40th round. Twice. First in 2003, then in 2004, start­ing his move­ment from low-level col­lege pitcher out of Dixie State (Utah), home of the #BlazeFor­ward hash­tag, to the ma­jor leagues. The process took six years.

By 2005, Kint­zler was out of pro­fes­sional base­ball. He had not made it be­yond the sin­gle-A level in the San Diego Padres or­ga­ni­za­tion and needed shoul­der surgery. He would wind up in Win­nipeg for two years play­ing in the in­de­pen­dent North­ern League.

Money was scarce. Kint­zler tried a con­struc­tion job. That didn’t stick. He tried sell­ing tick­ets for the Win­nipeg Gold­eyes, the team he played for. He was on com­mis­sion. That didn’t work. At one point, he found a fi­nan­cial salve by sell­ing an en­gage­ment ring he had pur­chased for his first fi­ancee.

Kint­zler started giv­ing pitch­ing lessons in a tun­nel at the Gold­eyes’ sta­dium, Shaw Park. He found him­self giv­ing di­rec­tions while stand­ing next to a space heater to earn cash.

In the 2009 off­sea­son, he landed a job as a valet at the Wynn in Las Ve­gas. That paid. He would make runs to the air­port to pick up celebri­ties. He still chased the big leagues in his head.

Kint­zler’s step­fa­ther at the time ad­vised him to stop play­ing games and find a real job. The in­tent of the ad­vice was at least guid­ance, if not fully in­spi­ra­tion. Kint­zler took ahold of it. The di­rec­tive made him pur­sue base­ball harder.

“That was pretty nice,” Kint­zler said with a smile. “I liked that. I’ll never for­get that. He’s not around no more.”

Kint­zler signed a mi­nor-league deal with the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers in 2009. They be­came the or­ga­ni­za­tion that changed his life in cel­e­bra­tory and ir­ri­tat­ing ways. By the 2013 sea­son, Kint­zler had found his way in the ma­jor leagues with late, heavy sink on his fast­ball. He be­came a pro­fi­cient setup man in front of Mil­wau­kee closer Jim Hen­der­son. In 2014, he lost that role in part be­cause of in­jury. In 2015, he pitched in just seven games and needed knee surgery. The Brew­ers did not re­sign him.

Min­nesota took a chance. In May of 2016, Kint­zler recorded his first save. He was three months from his 31st birth­day. In 2017, he was named to the All-Star Game be­cause of his 2.78 ERA as the Twins’ closer. July 31, he was traded for the first time. Af­ter two surg­eries, two years in the in­de­pen­dent leagues, park­ing cars and us­ing ad­vice to give up as fuel, Kint­zler is in charge of the sev­enth in­ning for a team ex­pected to chal­lenge for the World Series. He en­ters the game to “Lose your­self” by Eminem. The song em­pha­sizes ex­celling in the one mo­ment pro­vided.

“When I first be­came a closer, I fig­ured I would only get that one shot to be that closer, so I wanted to live in the mo­ment,” Kint­zler said. “I wanted to take ad­van­tage of that mo­ment. That’s what the song is talk­ing about.”

He also made a re­cent pur­chase. Kint­zler treated him­self to a Mercedes. He’s now park­ing his fancy car on a daily ba­sis. He doesn’t have to give the keys to some­one else when he ex­its.

“Noth­ing’s guar­an­teed in this game, so I wanted to make sure I had close to six years and I would be left a lit­tle more com­fort­able buy­ing that,” Kint­zler said. “I’m still a lit­tle skep­ti­cal about it. It’s a ter­ri­ble in­vest­ment, but I felt like I de­served a new car.”

The re­tiree

Mad­son has five chil­dren, ages 3-11. The 11-year-old is the lone girl. She is, to use Mad­son’s term, a “mini-mom” who helps cor­ral her four broth­ers when nec­es­sary. Two of those are 10-year-old twins. For­tu­nately, for san­ity’s sake in the Mad­son home, they get along with their sis­ter.

When Mad­son re­tired af­ter re­ceiv­ing no ma­jor-league of­fers in 2014, he fig­ured he would just be a fa­ther. He had a baby at that point, plus every­one else was still at a stage where they could use a lot of help from dad. A base­ball sea­son had never al­lowed that. So, he was “99 per­cent” sure he would stay re­tired, tak­ing his 2013 Corvette ZR1 out for an oc­ca­sional drive when he needed an adren­a­line push. Oth­er­wise, he would just admire its curves in the garage, drive his truck and man­age the kids.

“Af­ter the ca­reer I had, I didn’t want to play in the mi­nor leagues at all,” Mad­son said. “It was the ma­jor leagues or noth­ing. It was noth­ing, at that point.”

In 2015, the Roy­als took a chance on Mad­son, who had not pitched in the ma­jors since Tommy John surgery stalled his ca­reer in 2012. He be­came part of the league’s most ef­fec­tive bullpen. A three-year deal with the Oak­land Ath­let­ics fol­lowed be­fore he was traded to Wash­ing­ton.

Mad­son’s ve­loc­ity has come back, as did his curve­ball. The pitch pre­vi­ously caused him pain. This sea­son, it has been an op­ti­mal weapon both in Oak­land and Wash­ing­ton. Mad­son, 36, throws it 17.2 per­cent of the time now, ac­cord­ing to Fan­graphs. He has not used it that much since 2006 when he started 17 games and made 50 over­all ap­pear­ances for Philadel­phia.

“When I came back in ’15, I had a good cut­ter,” Mad­son said. “I never got to my curve­ball. When you’re in the bullpen, you just need two pitches, maybe three good pitches, so I was fast­ball, changeup and cut­ter. ’16, cut­ter kind of went away from me a lit­tle bit. So I tried us­ing the curve­ball again know­ing that I had more strength now, new parts in my el­bow. Started throw­ing it again. It started work­ing in­stantly.”

Of the three, Mad­son is the lone bald one. He would also come out of the bullpen to no mu­sic if he had a choice, which many may think an up­grade for some­one who pre­vi­ously en­tered to a Jour­ney song. Be­ing in Oak­land con­verted him to metal. At least on the field. Mad­son said he does not lis­ten to heav­ier rock in his per­sonal life. He’s more of a truck-driv­ing, laid-back Cal­i­for­nia guy. Doolit­tle ap­proves of the most re­cent en­trance mu­sic choice for his friend who is throw­ing 95-mph fast­balls again.

“Now he’s got some metal,” Doolit­tle said. “Some Chemist. That’s re­ally sick, man. That’s awe­some.”

The metal head

Doolit­tle’s old pro­file pic­ture from his time at Vir­ginia shows a clean-shaven young man years be­fore a Vik­ing-level red beard would roar off his chin. The se­condary photo is of a left-handed first base­man in a crouch. Doolit­tle pitched for the Cava­liers in ad­di­tion to play­ing first base. He was named ACC Player of the Year in 2006 be­cause he did both so well.

He was drafted 41st over­all in 2007, 39 rounds be­fore Kint­zler was in 2004, as a first base­man/out­fielder. Two knee surg­eries stunted his move­ment in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. When he was re­cov­ered, Doolit­tle was moved back to pitch­ing. He threw just 25 in­nings in the mi­nor leagues be­fore be­ing called up to the ma­jors as a left-handed re­liever June 5, 2012. Kint­zler spent six years as a pitcher try­ing to reach the ma­jor leagues. It took Doolit­tle just more than two months.

Though, Doolit­tle’s path has not been with­out its pauses. His left shoul­der has trou­bled him enough, as re­cently as this sea­son, that he has made mul­ti­ple dis­abled list vis­its to let it rest and heal. He re­lies on a dom­i­nant fast­ball and cir­cle changeup to get his outs. His shoul­der car­ries the load with those pitches.

Be­ing traded by Oak­land was jar­ring for him. Doolit­tle was part of the Oak­land or­ga­ni­za­tion for a decade. He knew the names of ush­ers, every­one in the front of­fice, every­one be­hind the scenes. Doolit­tle’s com­mu­nity work in the Bay Area made him a fi­nal­ist for the Roberto Cle­mente Award, which “best ex­em­pli­fies the game of base­ball, sports­man­ship, com­mu­nity in­volve­ment and the in­di­vid­ual’s con­tri­bu­tion to his team,” in 2016.

“Com­ing over here, it was like go­ing to a new school,” Doolit­tle said. “Ev­ery­thing’s dif­fer­ent, but af­ter a few days ev­ery­thing started to slow down and I feel re­ally com­fort­able here.”

This long home­s­tand has helped him feel more set­tled in the District. He knows where Star­bucks and the CVS near his home are. The route to the park has be­come more clear. He car­ries a piece of the Bay Area with him when he comes into “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Me­tal­lica, which is based in San Rafael, Cal­i­for­nia, about 45 min­utes west of Oak­land.

“I’m a metal head,” Doolit­tle said. “That’s the mu­sic I grew up on.”

The fix

Com­ing into Thurs­day, the trio had com­bined for a 1.80 ERA since ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton. Kint­zler had not al­lowed a run in four in­nings. Mad­son had struck out 11 and walked one in his setup role. Doolit­tle al­lowed three of the trio’s four earned runs in one bad out­ing. Oth­er­wise, he’s given up a run in eight in­nings as the new closer.

Wash­ing­ton’s brass feels the group has sta­bi­lized their largest is­sue. Be­yond their per­sonal re­sults, those three have al­lowed other re­liev­ers, like Sammy So­lis and Matt Al­bers, to be moved up in the game. So­lis is work­ing back into his role in the bullpen. Al­bers helped keep it afloat dur­ing the sea­son-long strug­gles. They are sup­ple­men­tal pieces now.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity of un­do­ing the past falls to the new trio, who have been pulled into a ti­tle chase in an un­likely place af­ter un­likely changes in their lives. Kint­zler is far be­yond scrap­ping for tips as a valet. Mad­son’s kids will have to wait un­til the off­sea­son to spend long hours with him. Doolit­tle at least now has a dis­tant chance to swing again in the Na­tional League, bring­ing back mem­o­ries of his high-end hit­ting days. To­gether, they are a rad­i­cal en­sem­ble charged with chang­ing what Oc­to­ber means in Wash­ing­ton.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als re­liever Bran­don Kint­zler was out of base­ball in 2005. He worked in con­struc­tion and gave pitch­ing lessons. In 2017, he was an All-Star closer with the Min­nesota Twins be­fore be­ing traded to the Na­tion­als on July 31.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Na­tion­als re­liever Sean Doolit­tle was drafted in 2007 by the Oak­land A’s or­ga­ni­za­tion as a first base­man/out­fielder and spent his en­tire ca­reer there be­fore July’s trade.

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