Struggling Rainey could be running out of chances

ARLINGTON, Texas – One month into the season, the hierarchy of the Nationals bullpen is pretty clear. Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey are at the top of the list. Tanner Rainey is at the bottom.

That’s not how Davey Martinez hoped things would go. The Nats manager wanted to believe Rainey would recapture the late-inning role he held before tearing his elbow ligament in 2022, joining Finnegan and Harvey as his most-trusted arms at the end of games.

Rainey’s performance to date has made it clear he doesn’t deserve to pitch in situations of consequence. Right now, he’s clearly the team’s mop-up man.

The numbers aren’t pretty. Rainey has made 11 appearances and sports a 9.82 ERA and 2.818 WHIP. He has only eight strikeouts in 11 innings. He has allowed a staggering 32-of-63 batters faced to safely reach base.

And after three straight blowups in the last week, all of them coming late in games with lopsided scores, it’s fair to wonder where the Nationals turn from here with the 31-year-old right-hander.

“We’re going to continue to work with him and see where he’s at,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to give up on him. We’re trying to ease his way in, try to put him in situations where hopefully he can start feeling a little better. But he’s a big part of the bullpen. We’re going to need him.”

Rainey was a big part of the Nats bullpen from 2020-22, notching 15 saves and striking out more than 12 batters per nine innings with a high-90s fastball and sharp slider. But he blew out his elbow in the summer of 2022, spent the next year and a half rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and now looks like a shell of his former self.

Most telling is Rainey’s drop in velocity. After averaging 96-97 mph with his fastball pre-injury, he’s down to 93.5 mph this season. And that pitch is getting rocked to the tune of a .412 batting average and .853 slugging percentage.

The Nationals hoped all along Rainey’s upper-90s velocity would return, but at this point is he going to just have to learn how to pitch at lower speeds?

“Right now, yes,” Martinez said. “I’m still hoping that utilizing his lower half a little better, it’ll come up. At times we’ll see that 94-95, but we’ve got to get him to understand right now it’s not there. It’s more about pitch selection. It’s more about location. Throwing fastballs right down the middle is not going to work, especially to good hitters.”

Rainey is getting hit hard when he throws the ball over the plate, but he’s also missing the strike zone with too much regularity. He has issued 10 walks in only 11 innings. He’s averaging 23.4 pitches per inning, with only two 1-2-3 frames to date this season.

“We’ve tinkered around with his mechanics, trying to get him to stay under his legs a little bit more,” Martinez said. “The thing is being able to throw strikes consistently. When he’s around the strike zone, he does fairly well. When his slider’s in the zone, it’s a good pitch for him. We’ve got to get him ahead. We’ve got to get him to understand strike one is still his best pitch.”

For now, Rainey remains the eighth man in an eight-man bullpen, his appearances limited to lopsided games. One week from today, though, Robert Garcia will be eligible to come off the 15-day injured list, and the Nationals are going to want to have their lone left-hander back in the bullpen.

Rainey is out of options, so he can’t be sent to the minors without first being exposed to waivers. The Nats may have no choice but to make a move next week.

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