For the most part, the Nationals bullpen has been a bright spot early this season. Not to take anything away from their accomplishments, but this group of relievers quite frankly had nowhere to go but up.
Washington’s bullpen posted a 5.10 ERA last year, worst in the National League and second-worst in the majors.
So far this year, the Nats ‘pen has a 3.61 ERA that was eighth in the NL and 17th in the majors at the conclusion of Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Marlins. A big improvement.
At the forefront, or should I say the back end, of this bullpen are Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey, two relievers the Nationals really need to have bounceback seasons in 2022.
With a banged-up bullpen that has Sean Doolittle (elbow sprain), Hunter Harvey (pronator strain), Mason Thompson (biceps tendinitis) and Will Harris (pectoral surgery) on the injured list, manager Davey Martinez has relied on Finnegan and Rainey to get important outs this season.
The only problem is that important outs have been hard to come by during the Nats’ 6-15 start. They’ve been particularly scarce during this current eight-game losing streak.
It’s not that Martinez doesn’t want to use Finnegan and Rainey more or that they haven’t earned more chances to pitch. It’s that there have been fewer high-leverage situations.
Finnegan is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA, 0.783 WHIP, eight strikeouts and three holds in 7 ⅔ innings. But he has only entered the game with the Nats holding a lead three times over his eight appearances.
Rainey has put up six scoreless innings with five hits, one walk, five strikeouts and three saves in as many tries. But he has also only entered the game with the Nats holding a lead three times over his six appearances.
How does Martinez manage getting his top two relievers enough outings to have a rhythm while also keeping them fresh for when he needs them most?
“I've talked to (Rainey) and Finnegan both about their usage and playing,” the manager said during his media session before Thursday’s game. “And Tanner especially. Tanner has always come up to me and says he can't sit four or five days without getting on the mound. So that's something that we're very conscious of. And I think Finnegan, he doesn't have to pitch quite as often, but he likes to pitch. So getting those guys some work in (Wednesday) was kind of good.”
Wednesday’s outings were one of the rare times the two relievers entered a game in a high-leverage situation while the team was losing.
Down 2-0, Rainey entered the eighth inning to face the middle of the Marlins lineup. He retired them in order with a strikeout on 21 pitches.
After the Nats cut the deficit in half in the bottom of the inning, Finnegan entered the ninth to keep it a one-run game and give the offense one more chance to tie or win it. He also tossed a perfect inning, needing only 12 pitches.
“Like I said, Rainey just needs to go out there,” said Martinez. “He says, 'I can't. I just don't have no feel when I'm sitting five, six days.' So we got to make sure that we get them out there, even though it's not a save situation. And there's days, too, where I told Finnegan and Rainey both, the matchups, for me, I told Rainey the other day, 'Hey, we might need you in the eighth inning because the matchup is, you know, that's where we need you to pitch.' And he says, 'I am ready for whenever you need me. Whether it's the seventh, eighth, ninth, whatever.’ And Finnegan's the same way. So those two guys, they get all the high-leverage situations late in the game.”
It’s probably true with most relievers, but Rainey is on to something when he gets extended rest. In 10 games throughout his career in which he’s had four days’ rest, Rainey has a 2.45 ERA. He has two scoreless outings with five days’ rest. But in the 13 outings when he’s had six or more days of rest, Rainey’s ERA balloons to 11.45.
What’s the difference for the right-hander when he’s not pitching every few days?
“He gets quick in his mechanics, he has no tempo,” Martinez said. “So once we get him out there, he feels like he can relax a little bit more. He's not rushed. So that's stuff that we got to keep an eye on with him. I told him (Wednesday) I thought he did great. And he said, 'Yeah, I just gotta get out there.' And said, 'I know. But also, if we go through a stretch when we win three in a row, I need you out there for three straight games. So I just don't wanna throw you out there, just to throw you out there.' ”
Like his manager mentioned, Finnegan isn’t really affected by how many days off he has in between outings. His ERA is pretty consistent across the board except for a 6.65 ERA in 23 games with two days’ rest and one appearance in which he gave up two runs in two-thirds of an inning on five days’ rest.
It hasn’t been necessary for either reliever to make back-to-back appearances lately, so Rainey and Finnegan have found themselves in more low-leverage situations than they would like.
Regardless of the situation they pitch in, however, their mindsets don’t change from outing to outing.
“It's funny you say that because Rainey (Wednesday), after he came out of the game, we talked for a little bit,” said Martinez. “And I asked him, I said, 'In that situation, what are you thinking?' Because we don't have a lead. He said, 'That to me is like a save.' He said, 'We're still down (two runs), but I'm trying to keep the game where it's at.' So it's kind of interesting, the mindset that they have.
“But they understand. You know, I try to tell all of these pitchers, no matter when you come in the game, that inning is a save opportunity for all of you guys, and that's the way I want you guys to look at it. So that when the opportunity does arise for these guys, they know. It doesn't matter what the score is, what the outcome is, but your job is to get three outs, try to get three quick outs. So they understand that. I know it's different. It's a different beast pitching in the ninth inning. We all know that. But I think, at some point in time, everybody had to learn pitching in the sixth inning, pitching in the seventh inning, pitching in the eighth inning in order to get that spot to be the closer or that high-leverage guy. And I think Rainey and Finnegan understand that really well.”