What should have been a nice and tidy, 3-0 victory for the Nationals in Cincinnati on Thursday night instead turned into a real nail biter. Handed that three-run lead for the bottom of the ninth, Kyle Finnegan proceeded to give up two quick runs and then let the winning run step to the plate with two outs.
Finnegan would ultimately escape, striking out the Reds’ Tyler Stephenson with a slider to wrap up a 3-2 win and record his 11th save, but it was hardly a straight and easy path to get there.
It’s become a rough final stretch to a breakthrough season for Finnegan, who has now been scored upon in three of his last four outings and has seen his ERA skyrocket from 2.61 to 3.57 in the process.
Manager Davey Martinez continues to insist he doesn’t see this as a byproduct of fatigue from a still-inexperienced reliever pitching more than he ever has in his career.
“I’m concerned more where he’s throwing the ball,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Location. He’s a sinkerball pitcher who throws the ball 96 (mph), and he’s throwing the ball up. I talked to him after the game. He’s got to get the ball down.”
Finnegan, to be sure, was putting together a strong season up until about a week ago. Thrust into the de facto closer’s role after both Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were traded, he successfully converted nine of 10 save opportunities from July 29 through Sept. 12.
But the Nationals didn’t necessarily envision the 30-year-old as their closer-in-waiting all along. He ascended to the job because nobody else was healthy or consistent enough to earn it.
Might that now change over the season’s final three series? Tanner Rainey, who internally was viewed all along as a potential future closer, has returned from a demotion to Triple-A with authority and made a case for himself.
Rainey pitched the eighth inning Thursday night and recorded two quick outs, extending his remarkable string of recent domination. Between his last three appearances for Rochester and first three-plus appearances with the Nats, he retired 19 consecutive batters, 16 of them via strikeout.
The streak finally ended when he walked Joey Votto with two out in the eighth, but Rainey responded by striking out Kyle Farmer to end the inning.
It begs the question: Would Martinez like to see Rainey take over ninth-inning duties here before the season ends?
“So today was a situation where Rainey, in the eighth, was the ninth,” the manager said, explaining that he felt the earlier inning was more important because it came against the heart of the Reds lineup. “He faced the bulk of their better hitters, we felt. And he did a great job.”