Rainey's healthy debut, Corbin's sharp cutter and Wood's latest homer

JUPITER, Fla. – This wasn’t Tanner Rainey’s return from Tommy John surgery. That came late last September, when he tossed a scoreless inning in Atlanta as a reward for all the time and effort he put in over the previous year-plus.

What was the significance of Rainey’s 1-2-3 inning today at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium? Consider it his return to a normal pitching routine, the specter of his 2022 elbow ligament replacement surgery now well in the rear-view mirror.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve pitched consistently,” the Nationals reliever said following his team’s 3-1 exhibition victory over the Cardinals.

Yes, it has. After working vigilantly to complete his rehab program last fall and make at least one big league appearance before season’s end, Rainey went into the winter a healthy pitcher who could prepare for 2024 just like everyone else.

The Nationals, though, did still want to take it a little slow with Rainey. He threw a couple extra bullpen sessions than his teammates in the early days of camp, then threw an extra round of live batting practice to make sure everything felt right before being thrown into a real game situation.

His time came today, in the bottom of the fifth. Facing the bottom third of the Cardinals lineup, Rainey got both Masyn Winn and Victor Scott II to fly out to left, then get Nick Raposo to ground out to third. The whole thing was over in the blink of an eye, lasting all of nine pitches (six strikes).

“I was really relieved that everything looked clean for him today,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s why we waited a little bit, just to get him to hone in on his mechanics. He felt good, and he did throw the ball well. Now, he’s part of the spring training (reliever) rotation, and he just goes out there and competes.”

Rainey’s fastball velocity topped out at 92 mph, which may sound alarming to anyone who remembers when he averaged 97 mph pre-injury. The 31-year-old wasn’t concerned in the least, pointing out he’s never thrown hard in spring training and has no doubt his full velocity will return by the time the season begins.

“You go back and look at my springs the past four or five years, that’s probably harder than I’m usually throwing,” he said. “I’ve started springs before at 88-89 mph. The velocity is not an issue. Hopefully, it just (goes up) from here. We’re still in February. That’s not something I’m really concerned about. …

“Hopefully from here on, it’s a normal spring training, every two or three days on the mound. Being able to work on things while I’m pitching. That way come mid-late March, we’re in midseason form and ready to go.”

* Patrick Corbin enjoyed better results in his second start of the spring than his first one, certainly from an efficiency standpoint.

After needing 49 pitches to complete only 1 2/3 innings Saturday night against the Astros, Corbin cruised through his three scheduled innings today on 41 pitches, 32 of which were strikes.

Corbin, who did not allow a run or issue a walk, scattered three hits and struck out four. One of those K’s came on the newest pitch in his repertoire: a cutter that Nolan Arenado whiffed at to end the bottom of the first.

After debuting the pitch Saturday, Corbin kept throwing the cutter today, getting swings on six of the seven he offered up (three of those swings-and-misses). He plans to continue to incorporate it, offering hitters another look from his traditional fastball-slider combo that he has lived on (and often struggled with) in recent seasons.

“I’m pleased with it so far,” he said. “I think the movement and location’s pretty good. I think as we continue to go, hopefully, the velo goes up a little bit (it averaged 85.5 mph today). But I think overall pretty sharp, and I’ve been locating that pitch up to this point, so I’m happy with it.”

* The game opened with a bang for the Nationals, who saw Lane Thomas and James Wood take St. Louis starter Kyle Gibson deep back-to-back in the top of the first.

Thomas hammered a 2-1 breaking ball from Gibson to left for his first homer of the spring. Wood immediately followed with a 111.6-mph laser to left-center off a sinker, his third home run in six games to begin his first big league camp.

Wood, who also lined a sharp single off the second baseman’s glove and struck out, was in the lineup batting second and playing center field for the first time. He’ll continue to get significant playing time for now.

“I want to get him up there,” Martinez said. “I want him to see some big league pitching, and just see how he reacts to it.”

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