Sean Doolittle sat in the Oakland A's bullpen one night early last June. Close to 12,000 fans filled the stands of the Coliseum, watching the Athletics battle the American League West-leading Texas Rangers.
A's starting pitcher Travis Blackley had pitched himself into a hole, allowing the Rangers to score five runs through the fifth inning. Now, with two outs and last year's American League Championship Series MVP Nelson Cruz stepping up to the plate, the bullpen phone rang. A's bullpen coach Darren Bush picked it up, listened for a moment, then lifted his eyes and nodded at Doolittle.
The former UVA baseball standout's time had come.
Doolittle (Col '08) finished his warm-up and began jogging toward the mound. He tried to stay calm and manage his adrenaline, but his excitement kicked in every time he looked to the stands and realized what was happening.
Not only was he making his major league debut but just last fall, in a last-ditch effort to salvage his career after a wrist injury—his third serious injury in as many years—he had made an unorthodox and rarely attempted move in the major leagues, switching from infielder to pitcher.
As the lefty looked to his catcher for the sign, "everything became weirdly calm," Doolittle says.
He struck out Cruz on a 96-mph fastball, ending the inning.
The next inning, Doolittle struck out Mike Napoli swinging, then Yorvit Torrealba looking. He fired a fastball over the plate for Mike Gentry, who hit a line drive to first base for an easy out. Inning over.
After the game, reporters crowded around Doolittle's locker. "It was really surreal," Doolittle told them. "I was so focused on controlling my breathing and trying to calm myself down, [ I ] didn't really get too worked up about the situation."
Still, the baseball world took notice. Only a year earlier, Doolittle was toiling in 100-degree Arizona heat with a cast on his wrist, contemplating leaving the sport entirely. Like many talented collegiate players, he'd started a promising minor league career only to see it derailed by injury. But Doolittle would not quit: He spent nearly a year relearning the pitching skills of his college and high school days, a rare metamorphosis that ultimately led him to the big leagues.
A triple threat
Doolittle grew up playing baseball in Tabernacle, N.J. By high school, he was a triple-threat player who could hit, field and pitch well enough to be a late-round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves.
But he wanted to pursue both fielding and pitching, so he chose instead to play college ball. He landed at UVA, where the Cavalier coaching staff had been successful fielding two-way players.
"We knew it was important to [Doolittle] to play both ways," UVA head coach Brian O'Connor says. "A lot of schools just wanted him as a pitcher, but our recruiting coordinator, Kevin McMullan, who's also our hitting coach, was emphatic that Sean could also help us from an offensive standpoint."
The gamble worked. Doolittle started 59 of 60 games at first base in the fall of 2005, hitting .313 and leading the team with 11 home runs. He also made 22 appearances on the mound, posting a 3-2 mark with a 1.64 ERA.
The next year he was named ACC Player of the Year, with a .324 batting average, 49 runs and 70 RBIs. On the mound, he was 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA, helping the Wahoos to their highest season winning percentage ever.
In 2007, Doolittle earned second-team All-America honors, finishing the season with an 8-3 record and a 2.40 ERA while batting .301.
"To make the contributions that he made both offensively and pitching-wise is really, really rare," O'Connor says.
With major league recruiters eyeing him again, Doolittle realized he'd have to make a position choice. But he wasn't ready to give up playing either side of the ball, so he told interested teams that they'd have to decide.
In the 2007 major league baseball draft, Oakland chose Doolittle, then a junior, as a first baseman/outfielder with the 41st overall pick. Billy Beane, the A's general manager depicted by Brad Pitt in the 2011 movie Moneyball, joked at the time that Doolittle came with a sort of insurance plan: If things didn't work out as a fielder, he could always try pitching.
"We laughed," Doolittle says. "I don't think any of us thought we'd use that plan."
Doolittle spent the next two seasons hitting in the minors, never having a second thought about giving up pitching. "I really liked playing every day; that's why I was so excited about being drafted as a hitter," Doolittle says. "I wasn't even thinking about pitching."
Doolittle entered the 2009 season with Triple-A Sacramento. But in May, while playing right field, Doolittle tore his left patellar tendon as he was fielding a ground ball.
He missed the rest of the next two seasons, but eventually recovered and joined the A's spring training in 2011. He started the season back in Sacramento, but in May ripped a tendon in his right wrist during an at-bat. His knee was healthy again, but now he couldn't swing a baseball bat.
"That's when I was the most discouraged, like, 'Is this a sign?'" Doolittle says. "I'd had it worked into my contract that I could go back to school if something happened and major league baseball would pay for the rest of my education. I already had three-quarters of a degree and I knew that with a degree from UVA, there's so much I could do. But then I thought, 'I can't see myself doing anything other than playing baseball.'"
A new plan
Doolittle went to the team's facility in Arizona to rehabilitate his right wrist, but by July it still wasn't responding to therapy. Oakland director of player development Keith Lieppman devised a plan with A's pitching coordinator Garvin Alston and presented it to Doolittle: Start working out as a pitcher, they told him. You're a lefty, so the wrist won't be affected. Besides, it will keep you occupied for three months. Maybe the wrist will come around.
Doolittle began basic mechanical work, long-tossing baseballs and talking to pitching coaches. Soon he was throwing bullpen sessions off the mound. His fastball speed and control, he says, returned almost immediately.
In mid-August, he decided to test the wrist again by hitting a baseball off the tee. The pain was extraordinary. He asked the A's if he could remain as a pitcher. They agreed.
With one day left in his Arizona rookie season, Doolittle pitched in relief, his first game in more than four years. He walked the first batter, but struck out the next two.
"Later that day, I packed up the car and drove home to New Jersey—and I remember being so happy," Doolittle says. "I felt like I'd found a way to extend my career."
Doolittle began the 2012 season with the A's Single-A team, but by June he had rocketed himself into the Oakland bullpen. While he isn't the first major league player to make the switch from infield to pitcher, Doolittle's accelerated rise, particularly after three major surgeries, is considered extraordinary.
"I've been the farm director here for 22 years and I've never had a story like this," Lieppman says.
After his June debut against Texas, Doolittle pitched with the A's for the rest of the season, helping the team claim the American League West title—one game ahead of the Rangers.
He finished his first professional pitching season having pitched 47 innings in middle relief over 44 games—the fourth-highest game appearance total of all the team's pitchers—with a 3.04 ERA, 60 strikeouts and only 11 walks. Doolittle pitched in three postseason games too, posting a 3.38 ERA before the A's lost the division series to the Detroit Tigers.
Doolittle is spending the offseason working out in Arizona and rooming with his brother, Ryan, a pitcher in the A's minor league system. He still hasn't completed his UVA degree and says those plans are on hold for now. And despite his slugging past, he hasn't been tempted to pick up a baseball bat.
"I have enough to learn about pitching that that keeps me mentally occupied," Doolittle says. "I really feel like I've found what I'm supposed to be doing."
Cavaliers currently playing in the Majors
Third baseman, Nationals
The “face of the franchise” for the Washington Nationals, Zimmerman (Col ’06)is one of the steadiest third basemen in baseball, having won the Gold Glove award, two Silver Sluggers and been voted to the All-Star game. He played in 145 Nationals games last season, finishing .282 at the plate with 95 RBIs.
First baseman, Indians
Signed as a free agent by the Cleveland Indians after a two-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles, Reynolds (Col ’05) is best known for his home run hitting ability. In Baltimore last year, he played in 135 games at third and first base while committing only 11 errors.
Relief pitcher Javier
Lopez (Col ’02) has won two World Series since joining the San Francisco Giants in 2010. The left-handed specialist has given up only one home run through 79 innings in the last two seasons.
The 6’8” relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies was called up to the majors in August 2011, becoming the 29th UVA player to make it to the major leagues. Schwimer (Col ’08) threw 34.1 innings in 35 games last season.
Entering the 2013 season, left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen (Col ’12) had not yet played Major League Baseball, splitting time with AA and AAA teams. Hultzen, drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the first round of the 2011 draft, was ranked the No. 18 overall prospect in MLB.com’s annual list.