In the big picture, the results have been there for Tanner Rainey this season. The Nationals closer owns a 2.88 ERA and 11 saves, including four straight conversions. He’s been unscored upon in 20 of his 25 appearances.
So why does it feel like more of a roller coaster than that when Rainey enters for the ninth inning? Because he’s putting guys on base, especially via walk, and often forcing himself to have to pitch out of jams.
Rainey hasn’t enjoyed a 1-2-3 inning of relief since May 26, a span of 11 outings. He had six of them in his first 14 appearances this season.
Walks are frequently the issue, especially when the Nationals lead by more than one run. He’s issued five of them over his last 7 1/3 innings.
“Understand the score of the game. Understand what we’re trying to do,” manager Davey Martinez said. “There’s times and situations where he feels like a walk won’t hurt him, because he knows the next guy he can get out. I tell him: ‘When you get out there, it’s three quick outs. Don’t worry about (anything else).’ He’s got to understand, we’re up two. He’s just got to attack hitters, try to keep them off base. But he’s learning. Closing’s not easy, as we all know.”
That was the situation Tuesday night when Rainey took the mound for the ninth, moments after Yadiel Hernandez ripped a two-run double to right to give the Nats a 3-1 lead over the Pirates. Rainey wound up walking Daniel Vogelbach with one out, then surrendered a single to Bligh Madris with two outs before finishing the game with a strikeout of Hoy Park on a 100 mph fastball that left the crowd roaring with delight.
“Physically, I feel fine,” said Rainey, whose velocity has been ticking up over the last month. “Nothing jumps out that I’ve changed or done to increase anything. I’ve been up that high before in my career. I think being able to get on the mound and get a little more regular time, things are synching up a little better and stuff’s coming out better.”
Which is exactly what Martinez wants Rainey to consider when faced with a save situation. If his fastball feels that good, why bother turning to his less-effective slider with the game on the line?
“He should understand who he can throw sliders to,” the manager said. “When he’s feeling that good, and his fastball’s that good and he’s got good command, 100’s hard to hit. That’s something he needs to understand. (Kyle) Finnegan’s kind of the same way. When you’re throwing 98 mph sinkers, that’s all you need sometimes. You don’t have to trick anybody. For me, the pressure’s more on the hitters when those guys come in, as opposed to the pitchers. Just throw your best stuff.”