WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. - Every time manager Davey Martinez or general manager Mike Rizzo outline their plans for the Nationals bullpen, they include hard-throwing right-hander Tanner Rainey. And with good reason.
Throw triple-digit fastballs complemented by a wipeout slider and you make people take notice.
But any thoughts that he’s secured a position in the Nationals relief corps is definitely news to Rainey, a 27-year-old who has no intention of assuming anything while he battles to make the 26-man roster.
“I wouldn’t say (I’m) comfortable,” Rainey said. “No job is written in stone and there’s nothing that says anything is locked up. It’s still the same for me: Come in, do my best, earn a job and be on the team.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s with good reason. That’s pretty much the same spiel Rainey expressed last spring, his first with the Nationals after being acquired from the Reds in a trade for righty starter Tanner Roark. Last spring, Rainey was just trying to make an impression on a new organization, and was willing to let the chips fall wherever they might.
Rainey started last season at Triple-A Fresno and was recalled to Washington in late May. He proceeded to open eyes as he gradually gained a foothold in a bullpen in flux. Pretty soon, he was consistently pitching in the sixth or seventh innings, on his way to a 2-3 record, 3.91 ERA, 1.448 WHIP and 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings over 52 outings covering 48 1/3 innings.
By the time the season was over, he was pitching in a World Series, where he struggled to find the consistency he sometimes displayed during the regular season. Though the Nationals prevailed in seven games, the experience gave Rainey a sense of what he needed to work on when camp commenced.
“It sounds like a broken record, but the same as every year: consistency,” he said. “More in the zone. It’s a boring answer, but it’s the same answer every year. It takes practice, it’s not something that overnight just clicks. It’s something you’ve got to constantly work on. I’ve struggled with that my entire career and it’s been an uphill battle.”
Like many flamethrowers, Rainey sometimes struggles with his command. Sometimes it’s a case of being too pumped up.
“We approached him about just going out there and focusing on being about 75 percent because when you get in a game, you get overly amped up,” Martinez said. “That was him. And he was able to calm down. The other thing is you got to take it pitch by pitch. Don’t worry about getting three outs, worry about the pitch at hand, then the next pitch and the next pitch. He’s just trying to hone in on that.”
Remember Martinez’s oft-repeated mantra from last season? Rainey is putting it to work in 2020, adapting it to his individual circumstances.
“It’s like he said last year: Go 1-0 today,” said Rainey, who has posted a 6.00 ERA in three relief outings this spring. “That was the motto the whole year last year, being able to forget what happened, whether it was a win or a loss the day before. You can’t control it anymore. Move on to the next one and do what you can.”
Relief pitchers, in particular, need to have incredibly short memories. When Martinez says Rainey needs to slow the game down and focus on each individual pitch rather than each out, he’s talking about that.
“Just being able to forget,” Rainey said. “If you make a pitch, good or bad, you can’t control it anymore. That one’s over. Even if it is bad - you give up a homer or a double or whatever it may be - just forget it and move on. Make the adjustment for the next one.”
Said Martinez: “I told him, ‘Remember what got you to the big leagues last year. You were able to harness your emotions and your energy and use it in a positive way.’ That’s my focus and our focus with him.”
In other words, there’s a difference between pitching with emotion and pitching with too much emotion.
“It’s not like every year I come in with something else I have to work on and change,” Rainey said. “It’s the same thing every year. Hopefully, little by little. Obviously, the sooner I get it under control, the better. A little improvement here and there is better than none at all.”