Tanner Rainey talked to reporters back in early May about trying sort things out this season in what’s been an up and down campaign so far.
The previous night, the 28-year-old reliever struck out three batters around a walk in a 20-pitch frame against the New York Yankees, but then he came out the next day with a runner on second base in extras and walked back-to-back batters before giving up a walk-off infield single.
What was different for the right-hander in those two outings, where he was dominant one night then couldn’t throw strikes the next?
“When I figure out what I felt and why it was different, I’ll let you know,” a clearly frustrated Rainey told reporters in his post game Zoom call from Yankee Stadium.
“I’m hoping I can go back and see some differences in video, but I mean, one outing is not enough to really feel a huge difference. It’s not something I’ve seen in video yet.”
Rainey’s roller coaster season has continued over the last month, with the reliever giving up multiple runs in three of the last four outings and posting a 13.50 ERA, five walks, 10 Ks, and a .304/.448/.565 line against in 5 1⁄3 IP.
On Sunday in Philadelphia, Rainey hit the first batter he faced when he came on in the sixth, then gave up a line drive double and a three-run home run. He retired the next three batters he faced, but a three-run deficit when he took the mound had doubled.
“We’re going to keep working with him,” manager Davey Martinez said after the 12-6 loss to the Phillies, “but we want him to be a guy for us, we really do, and he’s got the stuff to do it.
“He comes out, goes 0-2 on the guy, and then hits him in the foot, and then he falls behind and double, and then he threw a fastball up when he was trying to go down, and it is a bad spot for [J.T.] Realmuto, he gives up a home run.
“Then he settles down and he gets some outs, so we got to get him settled down right away, and get up there and get himself under control and throw strikes.”
Rainey has walked 14 batters in 15 1⁄3 innings pitched this season (8.22 BB/9), double the amount he walked in 20 1⁄3 IP before he was shut down with tightness in his forearm last September.
His build-up this spring was delayed by a muscle strain around his collar bone, and Rainey ended up going on the COVID-IL last month after contact tracing identified him as having been in close contact with Erick Fedde, who tested positive.
It hasn’t been an easy season for Rainey on or off the field.
The velo on his fastball is down around 2 MPH over the last two seasons, from an average of 97.7 in 2019 and 96.6 MPH in 2020 to 95.6 so far this season. Opposing hitters have a .378 AVG on his fastball, up from .253 in ‘19 and .149 in 2020. His slider has been a weapon, with opposing hitters putting up a .154 AVG on the pitch, up from .050 in 2020 and .101 in 2019, and it’s still hard to hit, with a 53.2% Whiff% on the pitch, which is still down from 63.1 in ‘19 and 75.5% in 2020.
“When he throws strikes with his sliders around the plate, he’s tough to hit,” Martinez said in Sunday’s post game. “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.”
That was something the Nationals’ skipper said they focused on from the start with Rainey, after they acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds before the start of the 2019 campaign.
“The biggest thing for me is when I first saw him, we first got him, he tried to throw every ball 105 MPH, and we really had to get him to settle back down and just honestly, just go out there and just tell him you got to go out there at 75%, because once your adrenaline starts going you’re going to be at 100%. And the ball is going to come out.
“He just needs to relax and go out there and like I said, it’s one pitch at a time for Tanner, and just get an out, go one pitch at a time and get one out and move on to the next batter.”
Rainey came on in the seventh inning in last night’s game, with the Nationals trailing 3-1 in the series opener with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he got up 0-2 on the first two batters that he faced, getting a fly to right from the first, Mike Brousseau, before hitting Joey Wendle in the knee with an 0-2 fastball. He started behind 2-0 on Mike Zunino, but got a fly to center for out No. 2, before he threw three 96+ MPH fastballs by Taylor Walls to end a scoreless, 12-pitch, nine-strike inning.