Unlike in years past, the 2022 Washington Nationals didn’t enter the season with a clear answer in the closer role. After serving in that role during his original tenure with the Nats, Sean Doolittle is the bullpens only lefty and has been used in early-high leverage situations. Kyle Finnegan struggled in the closer role last year and is better suited for the middle innings.
Despite his struggles last year, Manager Dave Martinez has been leaning on fireballer Tanner Rainey to close out games. So far he has lived up to the task, going 2/2 in save opportunities. He closed out the Mets on Sunday for the team’s first win of the season, allowing a lead-off single, before retiring the next three batters in a row. This came a day after he pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts.
Earlier today, he picked up his second straight save, striking out Matt Olson before allowing a single to Austin Riley. Rainey immediately got Marcell Ozuna to ground into a game-ending double play. On the season, he’s thrown three scoreless innings, with three strikeouts.
Finally healthy, Tanner Rainey has started to re-cement himself as the team’s closer.
Rainey was once viewed as the Nats’ closer of the future, but injuries and keeping the ball in the yard plagued the righty. After posting a 3.91 ERA in 48 1/3 innings during his debut season with the Nats in 2019, Rainey broke out in 2020. He went 1-1, with a 2.61 ERA, 32 strikeouts, and a 3.78 FIP in 20 1/3 innings. With Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson on the roster at the time, Rainey was used primarily in either the seventh or eighth innings.
His success stemmed from increased control of the strike zone — walking seven batters compared to 38 the year before. Unfortunately, Rainey’s 2021 season was doomed by injuries — and when he was healthy, he would lose control of the strike zone. In 31 2/3 innings, he posted a 7.39 ERA, with 42 strikeouts, and a 5.63 ERA. He walked 24 batters and finished with a career-low K/9 (11.9).
His 2021 struggles coincided with the Nats bullpen finishing last in all of baseball in losses (42), tied for last in FIP (4.86) and blown saves (34), 29th in ERA (5.08), and fWAR (-0.2), and 28th in LOB% (67.7%).
Most notably, he’s yet to walk a runner this season and has rebounded nicely whenever a runner reaches against him. In his career, he’s allowed 71 runs when someone is on base — including 13 homers. It’s only been three outings, but Rainey has already shown signs of turning a corner.
Something to keep an eye on is his fastballs velocity. Early in his career he was touching triple digits, but is averaging 94-95 mph, a career-low. In the past, he relied on overpowering his opponents and has been mixing in more sliders. Today, he topped out at 96 mph, a season high.