Nats hope Anaheim outing boosts Finnegan's confidence

If not for one ill-fated moment involving his bullpen mate in the bottom of the ninth Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, Kyle Finnegan might well have been the biggest story to come out of what would’ve been an impressive Nationals victory over the Angels.

It got lost in the shuffle when Tanner Rainey gave up the game-tying double to Shohei Ohtani and game-winning single to Anthony Rendon moments later, but Finnegan’s performance two innings earlier was the most dominant for any member of the Nats pitching staff this season and arguably would stack up with any single inning thrown by any major leaguer in 2022.

Tasked with protecting a 4-2 lead against the top of the Angels lineup, Finnegan allowed a leadoff single to Taylor Ward but then struck out Mike Trout, Ohtani and Rendon in succession, each on fastballs registering 96-97 mph.

For Finnegan, who had been scored upon in each of his three previous outings during the club’s West Coast trip, this provided a major boost of confidence.

“To have success against those guys, it’s reassuring,” the right-hander said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mets. “Your stuff plays. You get Mike Trout out and Shohei Ohtani out and Anthony Rendon out, you’re doing something right. That was big for me as a confidence boost.”

Finnegan’s outing didn’t start off on quite as positive a note. Summoned one inning earlier to try to get out of a two-on, one-out jam, he surrendered an opposite-field single to the Angels’ Jack Mayfield that brought home both runs. But he responded to that by inducing a double-play grounder out of Andrew Velazquez to end the inning.

Back in the dugout, Finnegan and pitching coach Jim Hickey discussed a tweak that involved the reliever using his legs more to try to generate power, and when he returned for the bottom of the seventh he did just that. Finnegan proceeded to strike out the Angels’ big three hitters, each on fastballs.

“He’s got good stuff, but sometimes I watch him and he tends to be a finesse pitcher,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He needs to just get out there and throw the ball. When he does that and forgets about everything else, he’s good. And as you could see the other day, he struck out three really good hitters consecutively. That’s the kind of guy he can be. It was good for his confidence.”

Finnegan’s fastball, which has some natural sinking action on it, has been his most effective pitch. Opponents are batting just .207 and slugging just .310 off it, both significant improvements from last year’s marks of .267 and .466.

And Sunday’s fastball, which averaged 96 mph and induced three whiffs while getting called for a strike an additional six times, was probably his best of the season.

“I think I kind of felt the pressure building that inning, and I just let go and started really getting after the fastball,” he said. “I started throwing it a little harder, and it had a little more life on it. I was really impressed with the execution.”

Finnegan did not appear during Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Mets, which seemed a bit curious because the game was close throughout and he was fresh after the entire team had Monday off. But Martinez said afterward Finnegan reported his arm felt “cranky” when he played catch during afternoon drills, so the team decided not to take a chance on using him during the game.

Not that Finnegan has seen an excessive amount of action to date. He has appeared in only 12 of the Nationals’ first 31 games, a rate that puts him on pace for only 63 outings the entire season. He’s been trying to stay sharp by occasionally throw short bullpen sessions off a mound during pregame drills.

Besides, he figures there will come a time soon when he is needed to pitch a lot more than he has so far this year.

“I’m just trying to balance that workload and stay fresh and also not take too much time off,” he said. “That’s how the season goes. There are ebbs and flows. There will times when our workload is crazy, and there’s times when you have to manage it. It’s just part of the season. We’ve all done it before.”

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