Opportunities for Rainey to pitch remain sparse

Tanner Rainey is the Nationals’ best reliever. Or, at least, they’re handling him like he’s their best reliever, using him as their closer when the opportunity presents itself.

Trouble is, there just haven’t been many of those opportunities to date.

The Nats have held a lead of three or fewer runs in the ninth inning only four times through the season’s first 35 games. And it’s happened, remarkably, only once in their last 22 games. (The team’s last six wins all have come by at least four runs, often many more.)

Which has left Rainey frequently doing nothing but watching games from the bullpen without ever taking the mound himself. He has appeared only 10 times overall this season, only four times so far this month.

So when the latter innings of Saturday night’s 13-6 rout of the Astros came around, manager Davey Martinez felt he had no choice but to go ahead and pitch Rainey, no matter the score. It was the 29-year-old’s first outing since his lone blown save Sunday in Anaheim, the third time already this season he was pitching on five days’ rest.

That’s not an ideal scenario for any reliever, let alone a late-inning stalwart who is accustomed to pitch three times a week, if not more.

“It’s difficult, because all of a sudden you’re in a close game and you want to put him out there, but it’s two days, three days in a row and you’ve got to pitch him,” Martinez said. “But yesterday, we talked to him before the game and said: ‘Look, this is going to be your sixth day. You’ve got to get out there.’ And he was fine with it. I asked him today, and he said he’s good to go. And he said: ‘If you need me for the next day, I’ll be good to go.’ ”

Rainey was unscored upon in his first nine appearances. Then came the blown save, in which he surrendered a game-tying double to Shohei Ohtani and then the game-winning single to Anthony Rendon, all with two outs in the ninth. Then he was scored upon again Saturday night, though the two runs were unearned because of a dropped flyball at the warning track by left fielder Yadiel Hernandez.

Whether or not the lack of consistent work had anything to do with Rainey’s recent struggles is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is that the lack of consistent work isn’t good for him.

It’s also not good for Kyle Finnegan, ostensibly the Nationals’ top setup man, who likewise has made only four appearances this month, only one of them coming during the current six-game homestand that ends this afternoon against the Astros.

Martinez will continue to look for opportunities to use both of his top relievers and keep them both sharp. But he’s reluctant to just pick spots earlier in games against an opposing team’s best hitters and summon them, for fear of ruining a much more consequential scenario later on.

“That’s a bit of a challenge,” Martinez said of Rainey. “But we also don’t want to put him out there too early, and then something happens where we really do need him. We thought yesterday was a perfect opportunity to get him in the eighth inning.”

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