Tanner Rainey gave up just one home run in his first 16 games and 16 1⁄3 innings pitched this season, over which he gave up just two earned runs total, then the Nationals’ hard-throwing 27-year-old reliever gave up a long ball in three of four appearances this month, and allowed four earned runs in four innings in those outings, taking him from a 1.10 ERA to a 2.66 ERA in 20 1⁄3 IP overall.
The first of the three home runs in that stretch was a grand slam in Atlanta, which was the first time this season the right-hander allowed an inherited runner to score after stranding eleven batters he’d inherited in his first 16 appearances.
“He’s been — up till today, he’s been really, really good. He’ll bounce back and hopefully he’ll be available tomorrow,” manager Davey Martinez said after Rainey surrendered the slam in what ended up a 10-9 win in Truist Park.
“These guys have been pitching a lot. I’ve been asking them to do a lot, as we know, our starters haven’t been going that deep in games.”
Rainey didn’t take the mound in the Nationals and Braves’ 12-inning marathon on Friday in D.C., so a reporter asked on Saturday afternoon if the righty had been unavailable. He had not been.
“He’s got a little tightness of his forearm,” Martinez said, “... so we’re going to give him a few days off. He went and got an MRI yesterday, it came back negative. I think he’s just tired. So he’s going to have today off as well. We’ll see how he feels in the next couple days, but I just want to give him a couple days off.”
At this point, in what Stephen Strasburg called a mess of a season earlier this summer, does the idea of just shutting a pitcher down when he experiences issues with his arm ever come under consideration?
“It’s — we’re in a difficult situation,” Martinez said, “... because we’re still playing to get into these playoffs, not by any means have we given up, and he wants to pitch, he wants to be out there and he wants to help, but with that being said — I’ve said this all along — you’re looking at potentially our future closer. So we want to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt. So we’ve got to keep an eye on him and be smart about this. If he goes out there and throws a flat ground and he doesn’t feel right, then I’m not going to put him in the game and we’ll have to do something else. So we’ll keep a close eye on him and see where he goes from here.”
Acquired from Cincinnati in a 1-for-1 that sent Tanner Roark to the Reds before the 2019 season, Rainey blossomed in his first year in D.C., helping the Nationals on the way to a World Series win, and his success this season has his manager convinced his future is bright.
“Rainey is slowly but surely becoming that guy,” Martinez said, “... and every time out there you can see him building more and more confidence. It’s good. Like I said, here’s a guy last year, you got to remember, last year was his first year, and slowly but surely he started getting better and better. This year, he had some — a kind of confidence in him that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be able to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. I’m going to get high-leverage situations and get outs, and he’s been doing that and he’s been doing that really well.
“Moving forward, like I said, I can see him being the closer. Right now he’s our eighth-inning guy, but I can see him moving into that closer’s spot in the future here, for sure.”
When did Martinez first see that there was something there?
“First time I saw him last Spring Training, not this previous one, but the one before that,” he recalled. “He was just trying to throw the ball through the backstop, and I just sat with him and I said, ‘Hey, I kind of want you to just to go through your routine at 75%. And just focus on throwing strike one, strike one, strike one. Because when the game starts, that 75% becomes 120%, because your adrenaline if flowing, so if you can control your emotions and control what you do now, it’s going to be a whole lot easier for you when the game starts.’
“And he worked on it and started pumping strikes and started talking to him about using his slider as a strike one pitch, not just as an out-pitch.
“You can throw it anytime, and saw him do that, and now all of a sudden he’s starting to become that guy where he feels comfortable throwing any pitch at any time, he can throw it in, out, up, down, I mean, so he’s becoming that guy and I love picking up the phone and putting him in the game and knowing what I’m going to get from him.”
Now they just have to decide if they shut the right-hander down and start building towards 2021, or send him back out there with little hope of playing in October at this point.