The pitch from Kyle Finnegan, a 3-2 sinker to Gary Sánchez in the bottom of the seventh that appeared to split the outer edge of the superimposed strike zone on your TV screen, was called a ball by Carlos Torres. Sánchez trotted to first base, and nobody at Yankee Stadium thought much of his one-out walk during Friday night’s game against the Nationals.
If you’ve been watching closely this week, though, you understood the significance of that borderline call. And why it produced something we hadn’t seen in quite some time: A baserunner against the Nats bullpen.
Indeed, Sánchez’s walk ended a remarkable streak for Nationals relievers, who to that point had retired 29 consecutive batters over parts of four games.
It doesn’t count as a perfect game, plus two, but it does represent the equivalent of that pitching feat. And it underscores just how much the Nats are learning they can rely on this group of arms early this season.
“This bullpen here is a strength of ours,” starter Patrick Corbin said in his Zoom session with reporters following an 11-4 win. “It’s very deep. And getting Will back is a plus, too.”
This is true. The Nationals had made it through the first month of the season without Will Harris, projected all along to be among their top late-inning relievers. They more than managed to thrive without the veteran right-hander, but they were bolstered this week by his activation from the 10-day injured list, where he had landed after suffering a mysterious hand ailment that still hasn’t been fully diagnosed.
Harris wound up pitching the bottom of the ninth of this lopsided win, and in doing so did something else we hadn’t seen from a Nationals reliever in a long time: He gave up a hit.
Clint Frazier’s two-out RBI single to left gave the Yankees a garbage-time run, but more importantly it ended another remarkable streak. The Nationals bullpen had not surrendered a hit in 13 2/3 innings prior to that single. The previous hit off this group? Huascar Ynoa’s grand slam off Tanner Rainey in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Braves.
Rainey hadn’t made an appearance since that disastrous outing, but he looked like a whole new pitcher Friday night. Though he walked Tyler Wade to open the eighth, he followed it up with back-to-back-to-back strikeouts of three of the most accomplished hitters in baseball: DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.
“Right when I saw him (in the dugout afterward), I was like: ‘That’s you,’” Corbin said he told Rainey. “It just looked like him back in 2019, even last year as well: Up to 97 (mph) there with a really good slider. It’s good to see.”
Rainey’s slider really stood out in this game. He threw seven of them, getting the Yankees to swing five times. Two of those resulted in foul balls, the other three in whiffs, including the strikeouts of Stanton and Judge.
“He was a little shorter with his delivery, and he was able to get the ball down,” manager Davey Martinez said, citing work Rainey did with pitching coach Jim Hickey since his last outing. “He had good depth on his slider. When he does that, that slider is nasty. He threw some good ones today. Hopefully this will resonate with him and he’ll start doing it on a consistent basis.”
With Finnegan, Rainey and Harris combining for three strong innings in Friday’s win, the Nationals bullpen has now allowed one run on one hit over its last 14 innings, walking five while striking out 13.
All eight current members of the group have contributed to this run: Finnegan, Rainey, Harris, Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Austin Voth, Sam Clay and Paolo Espino. For the season, the Nationals bullpen now ranks 10th in the majors with a 3.49 ERA, sixth with a 1.11 WHIP and leads all of baseball by holding opponents to a .183 batting average.