Tanner Rainey earned his first major league save in Wednesday night’s extra innings affair on the road in Tampa Bay, coming on with a two-run lead in the bottom of the eleventh inning, and walking one and striking out two around a groundout, locking down a 9-7 win for the Washington Nationals. It was a 20-pitch, 11-strike appearance for Rainey, who’d hit a batter but tossed another scoreless inning the night before, on just 12 pitches.
“Rainey threw the ball well yesterday,” manager Davey Martinez said, in discussing his late-inning decision-making after the Nationals split their two-game set with the AL East’s first-place Rays, “... and we’re just looking for a guy that can maybe strike a couple guys out, Rainey did that.”
Rainey, 28, who’s had an up and down season so far, with decreased velocity and command issues over his first 22 appearances, said the vote of confidence he got when Martinez sent him out for the save opportunity meant a lot to him.
“It means the world,” Rainey said. “When the staff still has faith in you, it means a lot. It gives you that chance to go back out there and continue to try to prove yourself and build outing after outing.”
Martinez talked last weekend in Philadelphia about continuing to work to get Rainey on the right track because of how important a piece he could be at the back end of the bullpen this season, and beyond.
“We’re going to keep working with him,” manager Davey Martinez said after a 12-6 loss to the Phillies in which Rainey hit a batter, gave up a double, and surrendered a three-run home run, “...but we want him to be a guy for us, we really do, and he’s got the stuff to do it.”
“When he throws strikes with his sliders around the plate, he’s tough to hit,” the manager said.
“He’s got deception, the ball comes out, and he’s tough. So, we got to get him settled down a little bit and not try to do too much.”
Through 22 games and 17 1⁄3 IP this season, Rainey, who finished the 2020 campaign with a 2.66 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 3.10 BB/9, and 14.16 K/9 in 27 games and 20 1⁄3 IP, has put up a 9.35 ERA, a 6.32 FIP, 7.79 BB/9, and 12.46 K/9.
His fastball velocity is down, from an average of 97.7 MPH in 2019-20, to 95.7 MPH so far in 2021, and opponents have a .341 AVG on the pitch, up from .253 in 2020’s 60-game run.
His slider is right about where it was in 2020 velo-wise (around 87+ since 2019), though that is down a bit from where it was in 2018 (89.3), but hitters have just a .143 AVG on the pitch, up from .050 in 2020 and .101 in ‘19.
What was different on Wednesday night in Tampa Bay? Was his stuff and command better, or did he execute better?
“I thought a little bit of both,” Martinez said before last night’s game was postponed due to inclement weather in the nation’s capital.
“The execution was better,” he explained. “A lot of it has to do with his location and his mechanics, honestly, he’s been struggling with repeating his mechanics.
“Yesterday was a lot better. He came in the game, and as we say, the bases on balls, and he faces [Kevin] Kiermaier and he walks the first guy, and I said, ‘Man, he just needs to get one out. He gets one out and I think we’re going to be in great shape.’ And then he gets a big out and at that point I said, ‘We’re going to win this game. He’ll settle down and we’ll win this game,’ and sure enough we did.
“For him it’s just being able to repeat his mechanics. We talk a lot with him about do we use him more, because we don’t use him, so this is conversations I have with him, like the more he pitches, is he going to be able to repeat his — because he’s a high-intensity guy. He gets the ball and he rears back and we talk a lot about him going out there and just kind of pitching at 80%, because once he gets in that moment, he’s a 150% guy where he just rears back and here we go, you know. So we have a lot of discussions about how we want to treat him, because like I told him, ‘Eventually, you’ve got good enough stuff to close one day.’ He really does, but you’ve got to repeat everything every single day to get to that point. So, he understands and he’s getting better. He’s learned a lot. And like I said yesterday, after [Brad] Hand, went through what he went through and kept us in the game, I sat down with Hickey and we talked about it and Hickey said, ‘Who do you want to go with?’
“And I said, ‘Hey, I want to go with Rainey, and I think Rainey can get the job done for us here in this moment,’ and sure enough he did.”
How much of what’s going on with Rainey is mental, or about confidence versus physical or mechanical issues?
“I talk to him all the time about — the biggest thing about those guys coming in like that is confidence, having the confidence,” Martinez said.
“They got the stuff, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s not being afraid of contact, go out there and hey, throw your best stuff. Like I said before, those guys have got a bat for a reason, they’re going to swing, they’re going to hit, but hey, I believe in all you guys, and Rainey’s stuff is about as good as anybody’s. So just got out there.
“Like I said, his big issue is being able to repeat his mechanics, and not getting so amped up that his delivery becomes an issue, and that’s when he gets a little quick, and wants to throw his slider harder than he should normally throw it.
“Yesterday, slowed everything down, and you could see it, and it was good to see, when he did miss, it wasn’t by much, it was awesome.
“If he can continue to bring it that every day, like I said, here’s a guy that can definitely, potentially be a closer, if not be a high-leverage back-inning guy for us, not only in the future to come, but soon, he’d be a guy that if we did need to give Hand a day or [Daniel] Hudson, a day off, he can step right in.”
Ryan Zimmerman, who homered twice in Wednesday’s win, talked afterwards about what a Rainey who is going strong could mean to the club, and the Nationals’ bullpen in particular.
“He looked good, and his velocity was up, but we need him to be that kind of guy,” the 36-year-old veteran said.
“Hudson has been pitching a lot, and him and Brad are not the type of guys that aren’t going to take the ball, but at some point you have to have other guys pitch high-leverage situations. It just can’t last. As much as we want to do it, and as much as we trust those guys, for us to be successful we need guys like Tanner and [Kyle Finnegan], who looked great tonight too.
“Those guys need to start doing what they know that they’re capable of doing and Tanner has got some of the best stuff in that bullpen and obviously was really successful last year, so I thought that was huge. We need him. We obviously all have confidence in him, and to seem him throw like that was good for us.”
It was good for Rainey too.
“I felt great,” he said.
“Still some pitches that I missed that I’m not completely happy with, still got the job done, but it’s still a work in progress. There were some sliders that I definitely still yanked glove-side, that I think could have been better.”