The praise for 27-year-old reliever Tanner Rainey was effusive after the right-hander worked 1 2⁄3 scoreless innings in the Washington Nationals’ 2-1 win on Tuesday night in Citi Field.
It came from his manager, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who knows a thing or two about pitching, and from shortstop Trea Turner, who said Rainey has been proving that he’s ready for more late-inning assignments.
Rainey entered the game against the New York Mets in the bottom of the seventh with two on and one out and the Nationals ahead, 2-1, and dialed up an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play, then returned to the mound in the eighth and retired the side in order, with two Ks in what was a 10-pitch frame.
That outing left Rainey with a 1.08 ERA, two walks, 11 Ks, and a .038/.107/.154 line against in eight games and 8 1⁄3 IP early this season.
“Rainey came in, we wanted him up for [Jeff] McNeil, he got a huge double play, and then he came in the next inning and he was lights out,” Davey Martinez told reporters in a Zoom call after Tuesday’s win.
“When he pounds the zone he’s as good as anybody in the game,” Scherzer said, after the veteran starter earned the W with the bullpen preserving the lead he handed them.
“With his fastball/slider, he can be really tough for the opponent,” the Nationals’ ace added.
“He’s going out there and pounding the zone and really put himself in a position to have success so it’s great to see him continue to make great strides forward, because he’s going to be a big arm for us obviously.”
“He’s just got lights out stuff,” Turner said after homering to lead off the game and going 2 for 4 overall on the night in the second game of the four-game series.
“I know the velo might be a little down, cause normally he’s throwing 99-100, but you’ve got to respect the fastball, and then he’s got the wipeout breaking ball as well to go with it, so when he’s getting ahead of batters and throwing that slider in there for strikes early, especially, he’s tough, and he’s earned the right to start pitching towards the end of ballgames when they really matter like tonight and he did a great job for us. I think he got five outs or so. That was huge. We’re going to need him to do that down the stretch if we want to win ballgames and push into the postseason and he’s been really good for us.”
One noted area improvement for Rainey, who was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in a deal for Tanner Roark before the 2019 campaign, is his success against left-handed bats.
In his first season in D.C., lefties had a .261/.420/.522 line against the righty, as opposed to his .139/.298/.228 line against vs righties, but early this season, lefties are 0 for 10 against him, with right-handed hitters 1 for 16 (.063/.167/.250). What’s changed for Rainey against lefties this season?
“Honestly for me it’s location,” Martinez said.
“I mean, he’s throwing the ball where he wants to throw it. And that was huge. That’s something that we talked to him about during the winter time.
“Strike one, strike one, using your breaking ball to throw strike one as well. He’s got a good one, and he’s been doing that.”
Rainey agreed with his skipper’s assessment.
“For me I think being in the zone is the biggest difference,” he told reporters in his own call on Zoom. “I don’t think the stuff has really changed.
“I feel like my slider is very similar to last year,” Rainey said.
“Fastball kind of the same situation, but it’s been in the zone and around the zone, with better possibilities of forcing contact of whatever it may be.”
With Will Harris on the IL (though he’ll likely return today), and Sean Doolittle struggling out of the gate, Martinez has leaned on Rainey, but the reliever said in spite of the fact the he’s getting late inning assignments, he hasn’t changed the way he prepares for the possibility of pitching each night.
“Honestly that hasn’t really changed,” he said. “Lately I have thrown a little bit later in the games, but I’m also still preparing in the fifth inning as if my name is going to be the first one called.
“It hasn’t changed and that probably never will change. It’s just part of my routine. I start getting loose and whenever my name is called it’s time to go.”
Why, if he’s pitching later in the game, wouldn’t he change things up?
“The first time you get caught off guard,” he explained, “... and you’re called to go in the game when you’re not expecting to, you kind of put yourself in a tough situation before you’re even facing a big league hitter.”
That’s kind of smart. Never change, Tanner.