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Washington Nationals’ Tanner Rainey talks maturity, fastball velocity, slider command, and his changeup...

Tanner Rainey has been one of Davey Martinez’s go-to arms in the bullpen early this season, and he’s responded to the challenge, after a big 2019 campaign for the hard-throwing right-hander.

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Davey Martinez has talked early this season about the growth he’s seen from 27-year-old Washington Nationals’ reliever Tanner Rainey, which has led to him to trust the hard-throwing right-hander, with a devastating fastball/slider combination, in high-leverage situations in the late innings.

“Since we got him last year he’s matured a lot,” Martinez said last week. “The biggest thing with Rainey is he’s got unbelievable stuff, it was his ability to throw strikes when he needed to. He’s done that. He proved that he can do that. He’s worked on throwing another pitch, which he hasn’t thrown yet, but I’d like to see him use it more because it’s pretty effective, which is a changeup. But he’s done really well. He’s actually, as you saw yesterday we used him late in the game, I think he deserves a chance to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. So we’re going to use him like that.”

Martinez has sent Rainey out to the mound five times in the first seven games, with some of the other bullpen arms limited over the week-plus since the season started, but, Rainey said when he spoke to reporters on Sunday, the manager is careful to check with his pitchers on a daily basis to make sure they’re good to go if needed.

“Physically I’ve felt really good so far,” Rainey said, “it’s been definitely a lot of outings, but every day before the game Davey comes to us and asks if we’re okay. I mean he’s definitely making sure that we’re ready to go if our name gets called, and I think he does a good job of checking in with us to make sure so physically I’ve felt good.

“I haven’t really had an issue and so far it’s worked out.”

Rainey has been leaning on his fastball (average velocity 95.3 MPH) through the first five appearances, throwing it 72.9% of the time (according to BaseballSavant.com), which is slightly increased from 70.7% last season, while there’s a corresponding drop in his slider usage (27.1%, down from 29% in 2019).

His slider he said, isn’t quite where he wants it to be right now, but it’s getting there as he builds back up after the odd offseason(s) everyone in baseball went through.

“I’m in a good place with it, but not exactly where I’d like to be,” Rainey explained. “There’s been some times this year where I’ve needed to throw it in the zone for a strike and wasn’t able to execute, and I mean, I’ve gotten away with it so far, but throughout a full season that’s not the case, you can’t get away with stuff the entire year, so not being able to get it in the zone all the time when I need to could pose an issue, but so far it feels really good.

“I feel like the break is there, like I feel like it’s got the action that I’m looking for and just continue to improve on the command of that and everything should be good.”

“I think his strike-throwing has been better,” his manager said last week.

“I mean, he’s working ahead in the count, which makes his slider that much better.

“That’s one thing that we talk to him about constantly. Is just hey, throwing strike one, throwing strike one, because his stuff is really good, and you see that now.

“He’s pitching really, really well. He’s got a lot of confidence right now, so we want to keep him right there.

“He’s gotten some big outs in middle-of-the-lineup situations and I like him a lot right now.”

Rainey was able to stay relatively sharp over the winter, and then during Spring Training and Spring Training 2.0, though it was difficult to navigate the process without knowing when to be ready for baseball’s return after MLB shut things down in mid-March amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus in the U.S., then restarted things in early July.

“The break was tough,” Rainey said, from a preparation standpoint. “Not knowing a for-sure start-up date and just trying to stay ready. Playing catch on a regular basis kind of like the offseason, but throwing ‘pens and stuff was tough not having a date to work backwards from, so it made it tough to figure out exactly when to be full-tilt ready to go, but for the most part I tried to treat it like an offseason throwing program and play catch five days a week and mix in a bullpen here and there until I knew for sure we were starting back up at the beginning of July and then I kind of ramped it up a little bit from there.”

While his fastball has been effective (.083 BAA early in 2020), Rainey said his velocity isn’t all there right now either.

He’s averaged 95.3 MPH in his five appearances, down from 97.7 MPH last season.

What helped him stay around where he’s used to being when others have had noticeable drops early in the 2020 campaign? The velo might be down, but he’s looked sharp early.

“I would say just staying somewhat in a groove,” over the second break, Rainey said, “like throwing on a regular basis kind of helped that, I wouldn’t say I’ve still got my normal velocity, I think I’m still — not down — but I think there’s definitely more, but I think that just comes with a quick ramp-up period and then not having a date that I knew for sure that I had to be ready to go.”

And the potential third pitch, the changeup that Martinez mentioned wanting to maybe see a little more as part of Rainey’s mix?

“I threw it a few times last year, I had a changeup, I may have thrown it twice the entire year,” Rainey said (BaseballSavant.com recorded three at an average 90.4 MPH velocity), “... so not much at all, but I threw it a lot over the offseason, and then again in our second offseason if that’s what you want to call it, just trying to get a feel for it, and I’ve been mixing it in in bullpens. It’s still not something that I’ve brought out into a game this year, but it’s not a new pitch for me, it’s just something that I’ve worked on more here lately.”

What would he need to see/feel in order to be more comfortable adding a third pitch to his already nasty fastball/slider repertoire?

“That is a good question that I really don’t have an answer to,” he admitted.

“If I found that that pitch was serviceable at all, having an extra pitch, and it’s a different look, it’s one more thing to have in your back pocket if you ever need it.”

While he does have some teammates with fairly devastating changeups he could reach out to for advice, Rainey said it was more about finding a grip, and being comfortable with how it feels coming out of his own hand.

“The grip on mine is more of like a modified split, it’s not necessarily a changeup,” he said.

“It’s something that I started messing around with in 2016 in Daytona Beach [in Cincinnati’s system]. I had problems with more than two fingers on the ball, always struggled having any kind of feel for it, so finding a grip with two fingers where I could still take some velocity off of it and get some kind of action was the biggest challenge for me.”

For a pitcher who got fairly-well lit up in his first taste of the majors in 2018, when he made his MLB debut with the Reds (giving up 13 hits; 12 walks; 19 ER in 7 IP for a 24.43 ERA), who subsequently traded him to Washington in a December 2018 trade for starter Tanner Roark, Rainey has come a long way in his two years in the Nationals’ organization.

He credited some of the players he has watched in the clubhouse in D.C. with providing a good example of how to succeed at this level.

“You get to watch guys like [Sean Doolittle] and [Daniel Hudson], and now we’ve got [Will] Harris, and I mean we’ve got [Max] Scherzer, [Stephen] Strasburg, and you get to see how they prepare and how they go about their routine, so every thing they do might not work for you, but if you pick up one little thing from each one of them, you can add that to yours, it always helps.”

He agreed with his manager’s assessment that he’s matured quickly since joining the club and getting another opportunity in a big league bullpen.

“I think it’s a big difference, especially last year,” Rainey acknowledged, “like I said, I have a great group of guys here to kind of watch and see how they go about things and talk to, and just get more feedback and input than I mean anybody could ask for, so having those guys around and being able to talk to them through any questions or any situations that I might need help with, those guys have been huge just to get me an idea of what’s going on and how to go about things.”