Rainey makes long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery

ATLANTA – The symmetry wasn’t lost on Tanner Rainey.

As he stood at his locker at Truist Park, a member of the Nationals’ active roster for the first time in 14 months, the right-hander couldn’t help but think about the fact he was in this exact same location the last time he was a member of the active roster, before he tore his elbow ligament, before he required Tommy John surgery.

When manager Davey Martinez told him earlier this week he was going to come off the 60-day injured list and make his long-awaited return for the final series of the season, Rainey thought about the full-circle nature of his story.

“I kind of had a feeling,” he said. “I had spoken to Davey, and he told me that it was possibly for this trip, which is kind of weird. This was my last outing last year, as well. In July, I threw two innings here and that was the last outing. To return here, it’s a little weird.”

Weird, but joyous as well. It’s been a long road back for Rainey, who hasn’t pitched in a major league game since those two scoreless innings against the Braves on July 10, 2022. Three days later, he went on the IL. A few weeks after that, he had surgery to replace the torn elbow ligament.

Though he would’ve loved to make it back in the minimum 12 months for Tommy John surgery, Rainey is more than content to be back for these final three games. He spent a month on a minor league rehab assignment, then took another couple weeks to refine his mechanics and get himself as close to ready as he could.

That extra work, he believes, made a big difference.

“It was huge,” he said. “Just being able to get on the mound more consistently. Obviously, it wasn’t all game speed. Some of it was in the bullpen, some of it was live BP. But being able to get more reps, try to feel more comfortable … the last two or three weeks, I think I made big strides.”

Rainey should get a chance to take the mound at least once this weekend, maybe twice if the stars align properly. Martinez will probably look for a lower-leverage situation for the 30-year-old (who was the Nationals’ closer at the time of the injury) to ease his way back in.

The primary goal: Get through this weekend healthy, then head into the offseason confident Rainey will be ready to be a big part of the bullpen on Opening Day 2024.

“He worked really hard to come back from the Tommy John,” Martinez said. “And he gets the opportunity – whether it’s today or tomorrow – to step on the mound again at the major league level. He’s put the work in, and he wants to go out and finish the season, knowing that he was able to pitch again, and then get ready for the offseason.”

To clear a spot for Rainey on the active roster, the Nationals placed fellow reliever Robert Garcia on the paternity leave list. The left-hander, claimed off waivers from the Marlins on Aug. 1, impressed club officials in his two months with them. Garcia made 24 appearances, finishing with a 3.69 ERA, 1.137 WHIP and 33 strikeouts to only 11 walks. Six of the 13 earned runs he allowed came in one Aug. 17 game against the Red Sox, skewing his ERA to some extent.

The Nats also transferred catcher Riley Adams (who is recovering from surgery to remove the broken hamate bone in his left hand) to the 60-day IL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Rainey.

The Nationals didn’t have to bring Rainey back now. They could’ve just had him head home for the winter knowing he was healthy and told him to prepare himself for spring training. But he acknowledged there’s a psychological advantage to this plan, even if he only pitches once.

“It just gives me peace of mind,” he said. “To know that the rehab was smooth sailing, for the most part. I got back and pitched in the big leagues. I can go home and have a normal offseason, not having to go home and rehab and hope it’s ready for spring. If I can do it, whether it’s once or twice this weekend, it just gives me a little peace of mind.”

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