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Washington Nationals’ Tanner Rainey got them all looking

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Tanner Rainey picked up three backwards Ks in an impressive eighth on Sunday afternoon.

Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Tanner Rainey took the mound on Sunday a half-inning after the Nationals took a 6-5 lead and hit the first batter he faced, putting Baltimore Orioles’ first baseman Renato Núñez on.

Rainey struck the next three batters out, however, and got all of them looking, as Andrew Velazquez, Núñez’s pinch runner, worked his way around the bases, but was eventually stranded 90 ft. from home.

All three batters stared at fastballs for strike three, which, why weren’t they looking for them in those situations?

“His stuff is electric. It really is,” Manager Davey Martinez told reporters on a Zoom call from Oriole Park after Washington’s 6-5 win.

“When he gets to two strikes, everybody knows he’s got a really good slider, but they’ve got to realize he also can throw a fastball. Now that he’s locating his fastball, it’s tough.”

Rainey too talked recently about how his success early this season, especially against left-handed hitters, was tied to his ability to throw his slider for strikes and locate his fastball.

“For me I think being in the zone is the biggest difference. I don’t think the stuff has really changed,” Rainey explained.

“I feel like my slider is very similar to last year, 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.”

Two of the three batters he caught looking on Sunday were left-handed hitters, leaving the lefties hitless in 12 at bats against the right-hander so far (with RHBs at .059/.200/.235 against him thus far in the 2020 campaign).

When he’s spotting his fastball, and there is the threat of his wipeout slider in hitters’ heads, “that’s a tough at bat for a hitter,” Martinez said.

“His stuff is good right now. We got to keep him that way. I loved giving him the ball in the eighth inning there, that was nice.”

Rainey’s bullpen mate, Daniel Hudson, was impressed with the fact that Rainey managed to get all three strikeouts he recorded with fastballs that were called strikes, when you’d think that’s what hitters would be keyed in on.

“I literally just walked by him in the clubhouse and asked him how you get guys to take your heater like that,” Hudson sort-of joked. “It’s impressive. When your slider is as good as his is, it’s 86-88 and then breaks like a curveball, it’s fun to watch. But, I guess sometimes you catch a team looking for that pitch and you can get some heaters by them and he was able to do that tonight, it was fun to watch, that’s for sure.”

Hudson, who was acquired by the Nationals last July, and re-signed with the club this past winter, has watched closely as Rainey, who came to the team in a trade from Cincinnati in late 2018, has developed into a legitimate late-inning option in Washington’s bullpen in the last two years.

Hudson was asked what’s changed for Rainey.

“The biggest change obviously is I feel like he’s able to throw his breaking ball for a strike,” the 33-year-old, 11-year veteran said, “and I feel like teams really have to honor that now.

“He was throwing 98-100 last year, it’s tough to spit on an 88 MPH slider at the same time.

“Sometimes guys see it out of the hand and they can spit on it if he doesn’t throw it for a strike enough. And I feel like him going to the next level with his stuff, the ceiling is limitless for him. He’s going to be fun to watch for a long time, as long as he, knock on wood, stays healthy and keeps throwing strikes way he is. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”

Rainey’s scoreless inning on Sunday left him with a 0.96 ERA (1 ER in 9 13 IP so far in 2020), a 2.49 FIP, two walks, 14 Ks, and a .034/.125/.138 line against.