Finnegan works overtime in first outing as closer

PHOENIX – As he arrived at the mound at Chase Field late Sunday afternoon, Kyle Finnegan understood the magnitude of the moment, and the challenge he now faced. The Nationals held a 4-3 lead over the Diamondbacks, who had just loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth off Steve Cishek, who after recording the first out of the inning now handed the ball to his bullpen mate, hoping he could somehow escape the ultimate jam without allowing the tying run to score.

Nervewracking? Sure. But also thrilling for Finnegan, who indeed escaped the jam, doing it in the most efficient way possible when he got Arizona cleanup hitter Christian Walker to ground into a 6-4-3 double play on his very first pitch.

“That’s why you play the game, to make a pitch like that and to turn around and see us make a great play like that,” Finnegan said. “You come into the dugout, and it’s exciting. It hasn’t been going our way lately, and to get a win like that where we fight to the last out and it was a great game by both sides, that’s what it’s all about.”

These indeed are the moments high-leverage relievers live for. And Finnegan has been involved in plenty of them this season, though few of them recently. Despite taking over as Nats closer nearly two weeks ago after Tanner Rainey went down with a potentially major elbow injury, Finnegan had yet to find himself in a save situation until Sunday’s series finale against the Diamondbacks.

And this was no ordinary save situation. Summoned by manager Davey Martinez in the bottom of the eighth, Finnegan not only needed to get out of the bases-loaded jam, he then needed to return to record the final three outs in the bottom of the ninth.

“I tried to stay locked in and not get too excited on the double play there, because I knew I was going to go out for three more,” he said. “It was pretty easy tonight to stay locked in. I never really let myself relax. I tried to stay focused and stay in that situation until we got the last out.”

Finnegan’s ninth inning proved rather uneventful compared to his eighth inning. He retired the side on 16 pitches, never letting the Diamondbacks seriously threaten.

How, though, did Martinez decide when to summon his closer? The answer lies in the matchups that presented themselves in the eighth.

Even after Cishek loaded the bases with two singles and a hit batter, Martinez left the sidewinding right-hander in to face No. 3 hitter Ketel Marte and wound up being rewarded for it when Marte popped up for the first out.

“I really did like Cishek on Marte, with the upshoot that he can do,” Martinez said. “But once we got him out, I liked the sinker to see if we could get a ground ball with Finnegan there. And it worked out. I didn’t want to give Finnegan three outs, either, in that situation. (Pitching coach Jim) Hickey and I talked, and I liked Cishek’s ball on Marte, and it worked out where he popped up.”

Finnegan’s heavy sinker, which he throws 97-99 mph, did seem like the ideal pitch to throw Walker with the bases loaded and one out. But there’s also some danger in trying too hard to induce a double play, as opposed to simply trying to retire the hitter any way possible.

“You know the situation, and so does the hitter,” Finnegan said. “It’s kind of that chess match there. You want to make the right pitch, but you also don’t want to be hesitant. You want to stay convicted and throw him your best stuff, whether that be the pitch that will get you out of that situation or the pitch that will just get that hitter out. It’s a balance, but I thought we matched up well for the double play, so that’s what I was attacking there.”

It all worked out perfectly. Now Finnegan can only hope there are more regular opportunities to do it again.

He got some experience in the role last summer around this same time. When Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were dealt at the trade deadline, with Rainey also recovering from an injury at the time, Finnegan was thrust into the closer’s role for the first time in his career. Things started off quite well. Over his first 18 appearances as closer, he posted an 0.96 ERA and successfully converted nine of 10 save opportunities.

But as he began to wear down physically, Finnegan struggled. He gave up 10 runs in his final eight games, blowing two saves and also suffering three losses.

He hopes things are different this time around, now that he has a better sense how to deal with the responsibility and workload.

“It’s kind of similar to last year,” he said. “I kind of fell into this role, I guess you could say. I’m just trying to show up each day and put my work in. Nothing changed for me. I’m just going to keep getting my work in, show up to the field, be a good teammate and try to help us get as many wins as we can.”

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