As others try to adjust, Rainey thriving early in Nats ‘pen

It’s only been a week, and these things can change quickly and dramatically, but at this point Tanner Rainey looks like an outlier among major league pitchers.

While others are watching their workload or dealing with noticeable drops in velocity, Rainey is thriving. He’s one of only six National League relievers to appear in five games so far, and the others all pitch for teams that have played 10 games this season to the Nationals’ seven. His average fastball velocity (95.3 mph) ranks among the league leaders.

Rainey-Pitch-Blue-sidebar.jpgAnd most importantly, he’s been successful. Until Thursday, Rainey hadn’t surrendered a hit in 2020. He did serve up a solo homer to Toronto’s Teoscar Hernández in his most recent appearance, but that remains the lone hit from the 17 batters the right-hander has faced. And it came in his fifth outing in six days, an unsustainable pace made possible only by the fact that manager Davey Martinez knew the Nats would have the next four days off.

How does Rainey feel about that heavy workload?

“Physically, I’ve felt really good so far,” he said Sunday during a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s been definitely a lot of outings, but every day before the game Davey comes to us and asks if we’re OK. He’s definitely making sure we’re ready to go if our name gets called. I think he does a good job of checking in with us to make sure. But physically, I’ve felt good. I haven’t really had an issue up to this point.”

The Nationals can only hope that remains the case in the weeks and months ahead.

With Will Harris on the injured list with a strained right groin and Sean Doolittle trying to fix mechanics that have contributed to diminished velocity, Martinez desperately needed Rainey during the season’s first week. The 27-year-old quickly has become the manager’s second-most-trusted reliever behind closer Daniel Hudson, and Rainey has wound up pitching some of the highest-leverage innings the team has experienced to date.

None of this is surprising to club officials who have viewed Rainey as a potential late-inning stalwart since acquiring him from the Reds for starter Tanner Roark in December 2018. But it’s happening at a most opportune moment for the team, given its other bullpen questions.

Rainey has done this in spite of the odd circumstances surrounding this baseball season. Unable to regularly throw off a mound while home in Louisiana during the sport’s long hiatus, he did what he could to stay in shape so he’d report to summer training as close to ready as reasonably possible, without knowing when that would happen.

“It made it tough to figure out exactly when to be ready to go,” he said. “For the most part, I tried to treat it like an offseason throwing program: Play catch five days a week and mix in a bullpen here and there until I knew for sure we were starting back up the beginning of July. And then I kind of ramped it up from there.”

Though Rainey’s fastball velocity has ranked among the highest on the staff, for the record it is down about 2 mph from last year’s average of 97.7 mph.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve got my normal velocity,” he cautioned. “I’m not down, but I definitely think there’s more.”

Rainey’s effectiveness to date has been predicated on more than his fastball. Opposing hitters have yet to make contact on his slider - which he throws about 27 percent of the time - striking out four times.

Though he’ll never be mistaken for a control artist, Rainey does understand that the more well-rounded his repertoire, the more successful he’ll be. His slider was an especially tough pitch last season, when opponents hit a measly .101 with a .325 OPS off it.

Rainey’s even been tinkering with a pseudo changeup (he actually grips it more like a split-finger fastball) in an attempt to give hitters one more pitch to think about. He threw it only three times last season, and he’s not necessarily comfortable enough to use it in a game right now.

How will he know when he is comfortable enough to try it out?

“That is a good question that I really don’t have an answer to,” he said. “If I found that pitch was serviceable at all. Having an extra pitch is a different look. It’s one more thing to have in your back pocket if you ever need it.”

For now, Rainey is doing just fine with his fastball-slider combo. It’s allowed him to assume the primary setup role in the Nationals’ bullpen and lead the staff in appearances.

Now he just has to figure out how to make sure he can continue answering the bell every time it calls for him. If nothing else, he feels much more prepared for that responsibility now than he did a year ago.

“I think it’s a big difference,” he said. “I have a great group of guys here I can watch and see how they go about things, talk to and just get more feedback and input than anybody could ask for. Having those guys around and being able to talk to them through any kinds of questions or any situations I might need help with. Those guys have been huge just to get me an idea of what’s going on and how to go about things.”

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