As vets struggle, rookie Nats relievers making their case

If you’re looking for silver linings in this mostly disappointing baseball season, it’s not hard to find them in the Nationals bullpen. Just maybe not from the well-known names you were expecting when this season began two months ago.

General manager Mike Rizzo built a relief corps that was supposed to be carried on the shoulders of three veterans with considerable late-inning experience: Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle and Will Harris.

Now, as the season winds down and thoughts start to turn toward 2021, it’s not wrong to wonder if Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan and perhaps even Kyle McGowin might end up taking over those high-leverage roles from their veteran counterparts.

The Nationals anticipated Rainey, who started to make a name for himself late last season, joining that mix all along. And though the right-hander is likely done for 2020 with a flexor strain, he certainly figures prominently into the plan next spring.

The more recent emergence of Finnegan and McGowin has added a new wrinkle to that plan, though. And both were prominently on display today during a wild 4-2 victory over the Rays in 10 innings.

“We’re going to start seeing some of these kids pitch a little bit more, see what they can do,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters from St. Petersburg, Fla. “Not just in low-leverage situations. I want to see how they handle high-leverage situations. I’m starting to like what I see.”

There was plenty to like today.

Finnegan was given the bottom of the seventh, with the Nationals leading 2-1. He got into trouble via back-to-back one-out singles, but then struck out pinch-hiter Yoshi Tsutsugo with a 3-2 fastball. A battle with cleanup hitter Nate Lowe ensued, the count again running full, at which point Finnegan showed his manager how far he has come in his first big league season.

Rather than force a 3-2 fastball over the plate to Lowe, Finnegan instead tried to get him to chase one up above the strike zone. Lowe took it for ball four, then Finnegan went back to work with the bases loaded and got the less-dangerous Manuel Margot to ground out to short to escape the jam.

“We had a great conversation when he came out of the game about his thought process with Lowe,” Martinez said. “I asked him what his thoughts were, and he said: ‘I really thought not to give in right there. Let him chase. I knew I had the right-handed hitter up behind him with two outs. I just didn’t want to give in right there.’

“I thought that’s awesome that he thought it through. He had a plan and it worked out today.”

The Nationals never intended for McGowin to enter today’s game, not with Hudson pitching the bottom of the ninth and hopefully finishing off a 2-1 win. But when Brandon Lowe belted a 2-2 slider from the struggling closer to right for the game-tying homer, Martinez suddenly needed someone to pitch the bottom of the 10th, having already used the more-experienced Harris and Wander Suero.

So it was that McGowin found himself in an unlikely save situation, thanks to Luis García’s two-run homer in the top of the 10th. With the automatic runner placed on second, 28-year-old rookie McGowin proceeded to strike out Nate Lowe, Margot and Joey Wendle in order, all on sliders, to end the game.

Thumbnail image for McGowin-Throwing-Blue-Sidebar.jpgThat slider has become a devastating pitch for McGowin, a one-time starter who this season was told to reinvent himself as a reliever at the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va. He has been brilliant since joining the big league bullpen, pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings and allowing only one hit and two walks while striking out 12.

“The biggest thing, and I tell these kids: You have to create your own identity,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to know who you are, what kind of player you are. What kind of hitter you are, what kind of pitcher you are. McGowin went down there and figured that out. And he’s doing well. But he did that. Nobody else could do that for us. He went down there and figured everything out, came back up here. He’s very confident in what he’s trying to do.”

Maybe it’s still a small sample to date, and certainly they need to prove themselves in many more situations of consequence. But what the Nationals have seen from the likes of Rainey, Finnegan and McGowin during this disappointing season has given them reason to be more optimistic about the roles they could play in making next season end in more encouraging fashion.

“The conversations I have with these guys every day has been good,” Martinez said. “And they’re getting an opportunity, which is awesome. And they’re actually taking advantage of their opportunity, which is great.”

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