Davey Martinez was saying for weeks towards the end of the 2021 campaign that reliever Tanner Rainey wanted to finish the season up in the majors after injuries and subsequent struggles on the mound led to a trip to Triple-A so he could get sorted out, try to find his command, and get back to being the potential future closer Washington’s Nationals saw him as after breakthrough performances in 2019 and 2020.
When he did return to the majors in mid-September, Rainey acknowledged it meant a lot to him to finish the season in the Nationals’ bullpen.
“I mean, get back here, finish the year strong, go into the offseason healthy, and build on that and be ready to go for spring next year,” he said.
“He wanted to come back, we talked about it, and I told him, ‘Hey, when you’re ready, you’re going to come back,’” Martinez said after Rainey struck out three batters on 13 pitches in an impressive 1-2-3 frame on September 19th.
“He worked really hard to come back, and he looked great today, so like I told him, just go out there and try to finish strong and healthy going into the winter.”
Martinez said in early August, after optioning the reliever to the top minor league affiliate, that the club sent Rainey out hoping that the 28-year-old could, “... focus on just throwing strikes, [and] getting his mechanics back,” while pitching regularly in a way he couldn’t be used in the majors considering how things had been going.
As his minor league stint went along, and he dealt with yet another injury, Rainey did find his rhythm and mechanics on the mound.
“Everything is kind of — feels like it’s synced back up. I’ve got obviously better command. It’s kind of been that way for probably the last week or so,” Rainey explained.
“Once I started building back up in Rochester, kind of played with a few things as far as timing goes, and just tried to get everything synced back to what was normal for me.”
The key to his timing he said, “... was staying back, staying on my backside a little bit longer, allowing my arm to catch up and get out front, and kind of helped with direction as well, so everything is working through the plate instead of rotational.”
Rainey gave up just one hit, two walks, and one run in 4 2⁄3 IP in his first five appearances back in the majors in September, striking out eight, and holding hitters to a .067/.176/.133 line.
A two-pitch pitcher in the last two years, Rainey’s slider velocity was up slightly over the last two seasons, averaging 87.7 MPH in 2021, after it averaged 87.1 in 2020 and 87.2 in 2019, which is down from 89.3 in 2018, but opposing hitters had a .209 AVG on his slider, up from .050 in 2020, and .101 in his first season with the Nats in 2019, though no one has hit one out over the last two seasons.
While his fastball velocity was down early in the season, for a second straight year (96.6 MPH AVG in 2020, 96.3 in ‘21, down from 97.7 in 2018-19), in his next-to-last appearance Rainey averaged 97.4 MPH and reached 98.1, and he talked after giving up the first run he allowed in five appearances after he came back up about getting his velo back as he built up and got comfortable with his mechanics.
“It definitely feels good to have it back,” Rainey said of his fastball velo.
“But being in the zone is obviously a lot more important. 98 [MPH] and two feet outside does no good for anybody really, so everything has picked up and obviously the body feeling much better now helps with the velo, but as long as I can repeat the delivery and stay around the zone and in the zone when I need to be, I’d much rather have that than the 98s on the board.”
He also reiterated why he thought it was important to get back up and, “finish out strong and healthy,” so he could, “go into the offseason completely healthy,” and, “have a normal offseason.”
“Obviously last year I finished up on the [Injured List] with a flexor strain,” he explained, “... so offseason was a little different, there was some rehab involved early.
“So throwing program was a little different than what I’m used to, so the big key now is finish off strong and healthy, and go into a normal offseason.”
Rainey made one final appearance on October 2nd, in the next-to-last game of the season, and in his second inning of work, after finishing off the eighth in what was 1-0 game in the Nationals’ favor, he gave up a leadoff walk and two-out RBI triple and single in what ended up a 5-1 loss.