WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Finnegan has come a long way in three seasons with the Nationals since signing a major league contract as a minor league free agent in December 2019.
The 31-year-old went from unknown rookie who flashed impressive stuff in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to trusted reliever who fizzled out late in 2021 to de facto closer in his first complete major league season in 2022.
Now entering his fourth season with the club, the right-hander isn’t too concerned about his role in the Nationals bullpen. He just knows he’ll make most of his appearances in the later innings.
“Back end of the bullpen, which you know is up for hot hand-type situations,” Finnegan said of his role this season. “I was told I'll get some chances back there, but we also have so many good guys that we can play matchups a little bit and bring guys in in different situations. So I think kind of building off last year, we've got a lot of guys that are feeling confident and having success. Having too many guys is always a good thing.”
Too many guys is a good thing, especially when the inevitable injury bug hits that part of the roster, as was the case last year when Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey went down in the first couple of months with season-ending injuries.
Finnegan was already comfortable in his late-inning role, usually pitching as a setup reliever in the seventh or eighth innings. He finished the season 6-4 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.140 WHIP, 70 strikeouts and 22 walks in 66 ⅔ innings over 66 appearances. But 44 of those games came after Doolittle and Rainey were sidelined, meaning his role was increased a bit. From June 11 to the end of the season, Finnegan pitched to a 3.43 ERA and 1.052 WHIP and recorded all 11 of his saves over 44 ⅔ innings in 44 games.
Now as one of the more veteran arms on the staff, he’ll look to repeat those results no matter which frame he is assigned, especially with it seeming like Doolittle won’t be ready by Opening Day and Rainey not expected to return until August.
“I talked to him already and I told him, 'Hey, look, there's gonna be days where you close. There's gonna be days where I feel like the eighth inning is where we need you the most,'” manager Davey Martinez said of Finnegan. “His response was, 'Hey, whenever you need me, I'll be ready.' I love that about him.”
Finnegan did a majority of the closing last season after Rainey went down. And despite a lack of save opportunities late in the year, his 11 saves were second on the team only to Rainey’s 12. It’s a job Finnegan wants to fight for in camp, but doesn’t necessarily need to have to start the season.
“When the phone rings and my name is called, I want to be ready to go, whether it's the seventh or the ninth or anywhere in between,” he said. “We have plenty of guys that can do the job. Do I want it? Absolutely. And I'm gonna prepare myself to be ready for that. But like I said, our job is to get outs no matter what inning it is.”
Finnegan started his campaign for the role yesterday in his Grapefruit League debut. He pitched the top of the seventh inning against the Cardinals, allowing two hits and two walks during a scoreless frame in which he threw 22 pitches and 11 strikes.
No matter what role he is awarded by the end of camp, he is just focused on being ready for the start of the regular season.
“If you're going to be throwing those late innings early on in the season, you really got to make a point to be sharp because it's gonna really matter early on,” Finnegan said. “And so I think the adrenaline will always be there once the regular season starts. And that's something that you can't really manufacture anywhere else. But for me, if I'm gonna be expected to throw those late innings to start the season, I just want to make sure that I'm really sharp by the end of spring.”
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