WASHINGTON -- The numbers from Tanner Rainey’s fourth Major League season paint the picture of 10 up-and-down relief appearances.
There were the two runs allowed in each of his first two outings, followed by three scoreless calls from the bullpen, another two-run outing followed by a trio of scoreless appearances, and then a grand slam allowed to Braves starter Huascar Ynoa on Tuesday.
The numbers compute to a 10.00 ERA over nine innings. Rainey, though, doesn’t pay attention to them.
“As a reliever, one bad outing could turn into a bad month if you’re looking at numbers,” he said Tuesday following the Nationals’ 6-1 loss to the Braves. “So you’ve got to take the positives and go with those as well.”
Rainey, 28, is coming off a 2020 season in which he established himself as a key piece to the Nats’ late-inning bullpen. He posted an impressive 2.66 ERA and a notable 0.738 WHIP while recording 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings over 20 appearances (20 1/3 frames). Rainey allowed four home runs to 75 batters faced. The right-hander leaned on his four-seam fastball for 60.9% of his pitches, which averaged 96.6 mph, and held opponents to a .050 batting average with his slider.
This year, Rainey is looking to establish consistency after the first month of the season. In comparison to 2020, he entered Wednesday with a 1.778 WHIP, 8.0 K/9 and three homers surrendered to 43 batters faced. He’s built up his fastball from 93-94 mph earlier in April to averaging 95.1 mph, and opponents are hitting his slider for a .214 average.
“Obviously, the velo’s down,” manager Dave Martinez said. “His inconsistency with his slider, I think, is the key right now. His slider’s an out pitch to righties. He’s throwing it, but he’s falling behind. I don’t think he really has that real good feel yet.”
In Tuesday’s series opener, it was a 95-mph fastball that Ynoa sent a Statcast-projected 427 feet out of Nationals Park to clear the bases.
"I’d seen that he’s been swinging it pretty well, so I knew kind of going in, I can’t take it lightly,” Rainey said. “Then obviously the first pitch -- not really close to the zone -- he kind of swings, a pretty big swing, and the next one was hopefully down and away located and it didn’t get there. It was something he could handle, and obviously he put a good swing on it."
Martinez emphasized Rainey’s value to the Nationals’ bullpen -- “We need him,” he stated -- and expressed his confidence that Rainey’s velocity will return to its 2020 form. Washington constructed its ‘pen with Rainey and veterans Brad Hand, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson anchoring the late frames.
“[I look at the] results,” Rainey said. “Go out there and give the team a chance to win.”
Strasburg is tabbed to throw between 35-40 pitches, while the Nationals would like the reliever Suero to toss 20-25 pitches -- or the equivalent of four batters.
“They’re both feeling a lot better,” Martinez said. “So the progression’s going fine.”
Mercer steps in
When the Nationals went with a right-hander-heavy starting lineup against Braves southpaw Max Fried on Wednesday, Martinez shifted Josh Harrison to right field and plugged utility man Jordy Mercer in as the starting second baseman.
Mercer, 34, has played first base, second base, shortstop and right field over his 10-year career. The Nationals covet that kind of defensive versatility, which can come in handy for scenarios like the lefty pitching matchup.
“He understands his role,” Martinez said. “We’ll plop him in when we deem necessary. He’s an unbelievable guy to have because his defense all around the infield … is really, really good.”