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Nationals find two new pitchers who were here all along

Nationals find two new pitchers who were here all along

Back in New York, when this was all falling apart, Tanner Rainey explained to a coaching staff member he had pitched multiple innings before. He also worked his pitch count to 30-plus for Triple-A Fresno prior to his extended outing against the Mets not long after he was called up. “No big deal,” Rainey said.

He looked then like a guy not yet ready for the major leagues. Rainey blew the save and took the loss May 21, a devilish duo for a reliever, in his second appearance since being summoned May 18 to replace injured Justin Miller. The joke was easy: he fit right in.

Five days earlier, Anibal Sanchez walked off the Nationals Park mound with a hitch and hefty ERA after 1 ⅓ innings. Sanchez’s hamstring was strained enough to remove him from the game, then force him onto the 10-day disabled list. He had been a bust to that point, roaring back to reality after an outlier year in Atlanta. Sanchez’s ERA stood at a sickly 5.10 when he left just 31 pitches into the outing.

Two different pitchers showed up Monday in Chicago. Sanchez allowed a run, four hits and struck out seven in 5 ⅓ crisp innings. Rainey further entrenched himself in the Nationals bullpen with another clean inning which dropped his ERA to 1.64. In the midst of their run back to relevance, the Nationals have stumbled across two new pitchers. It’s debatable which emergence is more surprising.

Rainey throws in the upper 90s with ease. He has become what Trevor Rosenthal was supposed to be -- a hard-throwing, somewhat ornery mound presence late in games. However, his command has long been an issue, his focus questioned and his secondary stuff so-so.

Sanchez often looked like the pitcher who barely found a job at the start of last season following four years of regression prior to his epiphany in Atlanta a year ago. He threw up to seven pitches -- a fun talking point which carried little relevance if none worked. Yet, Sanchez has delivered an emphatic market correction during his last three outings: 1.04 ERA, 15 strikeouts, three walks and a nibbler replaced by an attacker.

Each is coming at this revival from disparate places. Rainey is 26 years old. He’s pitched in 19 major league games. Fastball velocity is the easiest way to enter the major leagues. Throwing the pitch down the middle is the easiest way to exit. Major-league hitters believe they can turn a bullet around, and they are close to right. How Rainey’s slider plays next to his fastball will become a key. He would also be well-served by mimicking Sean Doolittle’s strategy of survival in the upper strike zone. A 99-mph fastball appears all the much harder closer to the chest than the waist.

Sanchez is 35 going on 65 -- at least in demeanor. He’s a source of intellectual pitching discussion for Max Scherzer, vibrant clubhouse music selections and all-around experience. Tuesday was the 298th start of his career. Sanchez arrived as a 22-year-old in the middle of the 2006 season. He’s pitched for four teams across two leagues since, starting almost throughout and coming in from the bullpen on occasion. If it can be seen from a big-league mound, Sanchez has watched it transpire.

Together, the pair has helped Washington right itself. Monday’s 12-1 bludgeoning of the White Sox on the South Side dragged the Nationals to a mere four games under .500 for the first time since May 4. They are six games out of first place, which is currently shared by back-tracking Philadelphia and forward-marching Atlanta. Both are on the schedule at home next week. When they arrive, two new pitchers will be coming to the mound.

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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