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What’s wrong with Washington Nationals’ reliever Tanner Rainey?

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Washington needs Tanner Rainey to pitch more like he did in 2020. Right now, he’s struggling.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Tanner Rainey posted a 2.66 ERA, a 3.78 FIP, seven walks, and 32 Ks in 20 games and 20 13 innings pitched in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, before he was shut down with some tightness in his forearm in September.

Rainey, 28, came into camp healthy this spring, but was set back by a muscle strain in the area around his collar bone.

He took time off, built back up and a few shaky Grapefruit League outings later, made the Opening Day roster.

After giving up a grand slam by opposing starter Huascar Ynoa in the sixth inning of the series opener with the Atlanta Braves in the nation’s capital on Tuesday, Rainey has now given up 10 hits (three HRs), six walks, and 10 earned runs in 10 games and nine innings pitched.

He gave up just eight hits, seven walks, and four homers in 20 13 IP last season. So, yeah, not a great start. He’s getting barreled up (20.7% Barrel%), more than he did in either of his first two seasons in D.C. (8.2% in 2019, 11.4% in ‘20). His Hard Hit% is up as well, from 43.9% in ‘19 and 45.7% in ‘20, to 55.2% a month-plus into 2021. His velocity is up from where it was in Spring Training and his first few outings this season (95.1 MPH average on his fastball, 86.6 MPH on his slider), but that’s down from where it was in 2020 (96.6; 87.1) and 2019 (97.7; 87.2), so yeah, there are reasons for concern outside of the results.

“The ball — he’s not throwing 97-98, but he’s 95-96, his slider wasn’t as good as it was his last, previous outings, but he’s been throwing the ball well,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters after Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Braves.

Rainey came on with a runner on second and one out, taking over for starter Joe Ross, and he got the second out of the frame on a fly to center by Austin Riley, then he put shortstop Dansby Swanson on with an intentional walk after falling behind 2-0, and he started behind 2-0 on Braves’ catcher William Contreras too, before working the count full and surrendering an RBI single on an 89 MPH slider low, out of the zone, that Contreras went down for, lining it to center.

A walk to Cristian Pache in the at bat that followed loaded the bases in front of Ynoa, and the 22-year-old pitcher, who’d homered in his previous start too, hit an 0-1 fastball up out well over the center field wall for a grand slam.

“I thought he made a really good pitch to Contreras, and he stuck the bat out and hit a line drive, but I look at that, that wasn’t too bad of a pitch,” Martinez said.

“But he’s got to bounce back. We need him, and we need him tomorrow if he can go tomorrow.

“So just bounce back and forget about this one, come back ready to play tomorrow.”

Rainey was dominant at times in 2020, but he hasn’t looked sharp early this season. What is his manager seeing?

“Obviously the velo is down, his inconsistency with his slider I think is the key right now,” Martinez explained.

“His slider is an out-pitch to righties, and he’s throwing it, he’s falling behind, I don’t think he really has that real good feel yet. Like I said, his last couple outings he threw some really good ones. So, like I said, we need him, so he pitches in high-leverage situations for us. So, the good news is that his velo is starting to come back, so that’s good.”

“So like I said, in this situation tomorrow, he’ll be right back out there.”

Martinez said they velo is ticking up already, and will hopefully continue to as things warm up over the next weeks and months.

“I really believe it will come back,” he told reporters. “Like I said when we started the season it was 93-94, and now he’s 95-96 consistently. I think once it gets warmer and stuff, and he starts really getting in a groove it will come back.”

Hitters have a .318 AVG on his fastball this season (up from .149 in 2020) and a .214 AVG on his slider (up from .050 in ‘20). He’s got to figure something out sooner than later.

“As far as the stuff I feel like it’s pretty close to normal,” Rainey said. “The velo might not be quite what it was last year, but it feels like it’s getting better each time.”

He did, however, acknowledge that he’s not at all happy with the early results this year.

“Overall with the month, somewhat disappointing,” Rainey said.

“Made some pitches that could have been executed a lot better that it seems like every time I’ve missed there, I’ve had to pay for it.”