With six-out appearance in win, Rainey feels back on track

DENVER – Tanner Rainey knew the significance of what he had just done. In closing out the Nationals’ 11-5 win over the Rockies on Friday night, he not only had been given the chance to pitch at the end of a victory instead of a loss for the first time in months. He also was given the chance to pitch multiple innings for the first time in nearly two years, his final appearance before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“It’s not necessarily a milestone,” the reliever said, “but it’s something cool to have back under my belt.”

It’s been a painful season to date for Rainey, and not because his surgically repaired elbow has hurt at all. In his long-awaited return from that 2022 procedure, the 31-year-old former closer had seen himself plummet to the bottom of the Nats’ bullpen depth chart.

Rainey hadn’t pitched in a game the Nationals won since April 27 in Miami. And though this wasn’t exactly the definition of a high-leverage situation, a six-run lead in Colorado is probably more akin to a three- or four-run lead elsewhere.

Rainey took the mound for the bottom of the eighth and promptly retired the side, striking out a pair and needing only 13 total pitches to do it. So when he returned to the dugout, manager Davey Martinez asked how he felt about going back out for the ninth as well.

“For me to have a quick first inning, and then just to have the opportunity to go back out for a second inning, that was big,” he said. “I know a lot of my innings lately, even they’ve been zeroes, they’ve still been some longer innings. So being able to do it pretty efficiently and have the chance to go back out for a second inning, it was definitely nice.”

Rainey wasted no time in the bottom of the ninth. He retired the side on a total of five pitches and got a long-awaited opportunity to be right in the middle of the team’s handshake line after the victory.

“It’s awesome,” Martinez said. “If we didn’t feel like he could do it, we wouldn’t have sent him out there. I wanted to push him and see where he was at. He came out fine. … Good for him. He threw the ball really well.”

The not-so-proud owner of a 10.38 ERA one month ago, Rainey has strung together six scoreless appearances since, lowering that ERA to 6.75. He hasn’t walked a single batter during the stretch.

With success has come more opportunity. Rainey pitched in only three games in May. He’s now pitched in three of the Nationals’ last eight games.

He used all that time off to work on his wayward mechanics, making sure he was fully using his lower half to drive off the mound and generate more power. He also made a point a few times to go through a full warmup routine at the end of a game, even if he knew he wasn’t going to be inserted in the game, just to get the sense of urgency that comes with it again.

Rainey doesn’t begrudge the Nationals for restricting his usage so much. He understood the situation.

“I never really did have to go talk to Davey or anybody about that. That wasn’t something I was concerned with at that point,” he said. “It was more about taking a step back. I know I hadn’t been throwing well. There were some things I needed to work on, and I took that time to do that. I just tried to stay focused on improving and getting back to where I could be a helpful part of this team.”

Rainey is a long way from fully being back. His fastball averages only 93.6 mph, down from 97 mph in 2022.

But he does appear to be on an upward trajectory again. And he understands the Nationals didn’t have to show as much patience as they did to give him this second chance.

“I’m obviously grateful for that, to still be here and have a job,” he said. “And just being here and being part of the team every day. That’s a big thing. Them having the patience, and me having the chance to work some things out, it’s nice.”

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