Not once in his previous 101 major league relief appearances had Tanner Rainey been handed the ball with his team leading by three or fewer runs and needing only three more outs to secure a win. Certainly there were times in 2020 when the Nationals right-hander seemed deserving of such an assignment. But it hadn’t happened.
That it did finally happen Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the Nats leading the Rays 9-7 in the bottom of the 11th, was rather shocking. Because Rainey entered from the left field bullpen the not-so-proud owner of a 9.92 ERA and 1.959 WHIP. Not exactly closer material.
Manager Davey Martinez, though, had already burned up Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand to record 11 outs across the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th innings. He had already used Kyle Finnegan earlier in the game. And he had used Wander Suero in each of his team’s previous two games, making him unavailable.
So the Nationals manager may not have chosen Rainey to close Wednesday night out of a full pool of available candidates. But he chose him nonetheless.
“Rainey threw the ball well (Tuesday),” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “We were just looking for a guy who could maybe strike a couple guys out. Rainey did that.”
Yes, he did. Despite issuing a leadoff walk that allowed the Rays to bring the winning run to the plate with nobody out in the 11th, Rainey proceeded to retire Tampa Bay’s 1-2-3 hitters with two strikeouts and a ground ball to first. And in doing so, the 28-year-old earned the first save of his career.
“It means the world,” he said of being put into that situation. “When the staff still has faith in you, it means a lot. It gives you that chance to go back out there and continue to build outing after outing.”
The season’s first two months have been nothing short of disastrous for Rainey. He has given up 19 runs in 22 appearances. He has walked 15 batters in 17 1/3 innings, and plunked two more for good measure.
But during Tuesday’s loss, he posted a zero, retiring three of the four batters he faced. So he was feeling a bit better about himself entering Wednesday’s series finale.
And despite the quick walk, he was throwing the ball better than he had in recent outings. Relying on his fastball after a stretch in which he sometimes turned almost exclusively to his slider, he induced five swings-and-misses from the Rays during a 20-pitch inning.
“I felt great,” he said. “There were still some pitches I missed that I’m not completely happy with. I still got the job done, but it’s still a work in progress.”
The Nationals intended for Rainey to hold a prominent role in their bullpen entering the season, joining Hudson, Hand and veteran Will Harris as part of a four-man group that could all handle late-inning situations.
He’ll need to do more than this to earn his way back into that role. But given how much the club has leaned on Hudson and Hand - who combined to throw 75 pitches and allow three runs Wednesday night - the time may be coming for Martinez to entrust Rainey more regularly in these big spots.
“We need him to be that kind of guy,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Huddy has been pitching a lot. Him and Brad are not the type of guys who are not going to take the ball, but at some point, you’ve got to have other guys pitch high-leverage situations. It just can’t last. As much as they want to do it, and as much as we trust those guys, for us to be successful we need guys like Tanner. ...
“Tanner has got some of the best stuff in that bullpen, and obviously was really successful last year. I thought that was huge. We need him. We obviously all have confidence in him. To see him throw like that was good for us.”