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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