Kyle Finnegan has carved out a role in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, and he might see himself pitching later, higher-leverage innings after his performance in Thursday’s 6-5 loss to Atlanta.
After another bad outing by bridge men Will Harris and Tanner Rainey, and an injury to setup man Sean Doolittle, Finnegan is in line for a stepped-up role.
Finnegan won Nats fans over by making the major league roster after seven years in the minors, and he won Manager Davey Martinez’s trust by going 10 appearances and 10 1⁄3 innings pitched before giving up a run.
Thursday against the Braves, he came into a game with a chance to protect a lead and possibly be the pitcher of record, and came through, using his glove and legs to make two slick fielding plays. Only the shortcomings of other bullpen arms kept him from being eligible for the win.
“Let’s give credit to Finn,” Manager Davey Martinez said after the game. “Came in there today and got big outs today.”
Austin Voth was perfect the first time thorough the order, but got in trouble in the fourth inning, up 5-0 after breezing through the first three. Martinez let Voth get himself out of his first jam, with two men on after allowing Freddie Freeman’s first of two, two-run homers and he got weak contact by Ozzie Albies to earn himself a chance for the win.
But one out into the fifth, when Voth hit Tyler Flowers with a pitch, Martinez didn’t give him another chance. Instead, Wander Suero, fresh off an appearance where he allowed his first two inherited runs of the season, allowed Ronald Acuña’s two-run homer to pull the Braves within one at 5-4.
After Suero retired the final two batters of the fifth and the Nats tacked on a run on Yan Gomes’ sac fly in the bottom of the inning, it was time to turn the game over to Finnegan.
After taking over for struggling starters in recent outings, Finnegan was given his own inning and a lead to protect. Finnegan hasn’t coughed up a lead all season, but he found himself quickly in trouble, surrendering back-to-back singles to Adam DuVall and Dansby Swanson, both on sliders.
With a 1-1 count on Austin Riley, Finnegan went back to the sinker, and this time, he got a line drive straight into his glove. He easily doubled off Swanson, who was off on contact.
Finnegan pounded the high outside part of the strike zone against Ozzie Albies, forcing weak contact on an 0-2 sinker and sprinting to the bag to take the throw from Asdrubal Cabrera, who charged down the line to make the play.
Finnegan had gotten himself in trouble, but he didn’t need so much as a mound visit to turn himself around, start throwing strikes, and use his own fielding skills to bail himself out.
Now there are possibilities for Finnegan to pitch in late innings. Harris, who started the season as a setup man, has struggled throughout the season, 0-1 with a 3.97 ERA and three blown save opportunities, including Thursday night’s, when he gave up the game-tying two-run homer by Freeman.
The losing pitcher, Tanner Rainey, was nearly perfect for the first two months of the season but has given up three home runs in his last four appearances, including Thursday night’s game winner to Dansby Swanson.
The development that will make a bullpen shift probably, though, is the ninth-inning injury to Doolittle, who had turned his season around and earned Martinez’s trust as the setup man when he injured his right oblique, possibly ending his season. Harris and Rainey are both two candidates for that spot, but Harris may have already pitched his way out of the setup role, and Rainey isn’t exactly pitching himself into it.
Martinez may not put Finnegan in the setup role when he reconfigures his bullpen, but there’s a good chance he’ll find himself in late, game-changing situations.