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Washington Nationals’ Tanner Rainey working his way back again...

Tanner Rainey was reinstated from the IL on Thursday, and the Nationals are hoping he continues to improve now that he’s available again...

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Tanner Rainey was identified, through contact tracing, as having been in close contact with Erick Fedde, who tested positive for COVID-19 while the Washington Nationals were on the road in Chicago last week.

Rainey, according to Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez, was asymptomatic, but he still had to be cleared to return to the club, which he was this past Tuesday.

As the manager explained in Wednesday afternoon’s pregame Zoom call with reporters, the 28-year-old right-hander threw an extended bullpen on Tuesday, so the club was waiting to see how he responded before making any decisions on reinstating the reliever.

“Tanner threw a bullpen yesterday, an extended bullpen,” Martinez said, before providing the additional details that it was a 32-pitch throwing session.

“I’m going to see how he came out of that today. We’ll kind of keep an eye on him, but if everything went well, he’ll probably be activated tomorrow.”

Rainey hadn’t pitched in game action in nine days at that point, but his manager said the time off for the reliever did not particularly concern him.

“He hasn’t really missed that much time,” Martinez said. “There’s been times that guys in the bullpen, especially in the back end, where they don’t pitch for six or seven days. So I’ll talk to him today, if he feels good today, we possibly could activate him tomorrow. But I want to have that conversation with him.”

Considering his recent history, however, which includes right forearm tightness that ended his 2020 campaign in mid-September, and a muscle strain near his collar bone that slowed his build-up this past spring, will the Nationals take a cautious approach with the reliever as he works his way back into the mix?

“If we use him today,” Martinez said before the first of two with the Reds in D.C. on Thursday, “we probably won’t use him for the second game, obviously, and then we’ll see how he feels for tomorrow’s game as well.

“We definitely want to be careful with him, but with that being said, like I said, we wouldn’t activate him if we didn’t think that he threw the ball well in his bullpen.”

“The ball was coming out really well,” Martinez continued. “His slider was really sharp, his mechanics were probably better than I’ve seen in a while, so you know, I talked to him last night and he said he felt great, so I told him that he’ll be activated for the first game and he was excited about it.”

How will Rainey (and his arm) handle another break?

Rainey’s fastball velocity, which is up from where it was at the start of the 2021 campaign, is still down from where it was in the last two seasons, sitting at an average of 95.3 MPH, after he averaged 97.7 MPH in 2019 and 96.6 in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign. He has been back up in high-90s, maxing out at 97.8, but he has a .296 BAA on it this year, up from .149 last year. Any concerns there?

Is it just there’s less room for error when it’s not up a tick velo-wise?

“For the most part it’s just location on his fastball and he has been getting better,” Martinez said. “He understands that he just can’t rear back and throw it down the middle, there [are] good hitters in this league, so it’s all about his location and his command, so the good news is ... is that his slider has gotten a lot better since the beginning of the year, and that always helps him too, because we always deem that when his fastball isn’t as good, he can rely on his slider to get guys out and he’s done that recently, so like I said, when he threw his bullpen, he threw some sliders the other day that were really, really sharp and that’s a good sign.”

Rainey returned to the mound in the first game of two with the Reds on Thursday, taking the mound with the Nationals up 5-0, but his fastball command was an issue again, and he gave up back-to-back-to-back hits, all singles, and a run.

His fastball sat 96-98, but command was an issue, and he was lifted after 11 pitches, five of them strikes.

“We’re up five, we want to get Rainey in there today, he was just — honestly, he was over-amped,” Martinez said.

“He threw the first ball 98 MPH and then after that he was really, really trying to throw his slider and just started overthrowing a little bit. We just got to get him relaxed. I told him I said, ‘Hey, let’s just chalk this one up to you being excited to be back with the boys and we’ll go from there.’ But we got to get him right, we know that, he’s a big part of our bullpen. But he was opening up a little bit and I think that’s just because like I said he was just really fired up to be back and then he was just overthrow a little bit.”

“He came out and threw 98 and I wasn’t overly excited about that,” the manager added.

“I just wanted him to throw strike one and then go from there. I wanted him to kind of relax, and like I said, we’re up five runs, we just need outs from him. But I could tell right away when he did that — I thought he threw the first slider and he was way off, threw the second slider, the same, the same, and I thought, ‘Oh boy,’ he just got excited and he started opening up a little bit.

“We just got to hone him down, get him back out there when we deem possible and then go from there.”