Dave Martinez first noticed it on May 20, at the center of Citi Field, once Tanner Rainey had jogged in from the bullpen and reached out his right hand to take the ball.
Rainey’s mouth was straight, his brows furrowed, his eyes fixed ahead as if Martinez, who had been his manager for just a few days, wasn’t standing there at all. Martinez calls this “The Look,” the flat pulse needed for big situations, and Rainey has it.
“I was meant to be a reliever,” Rainey said, leaning into his locker in Chicago last week, his brows still caved inward, but a smile tugging lightly on his face. “I did a bit of everything else. I tried to be a starter, I held onto hitting for a while, but I’m a reliever. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
He was trying to explain how he’s helped stabilize the Nationals bullpen in recent weeks, with his high-90s fastball and biting slider, with a 2.19 ERA in 12 1/3 innings since coming up from the minors in late May. But there’s more to it than that. Like, to start, how Rainey went from pitching just 10 innings in high school, to no more than 30 in any of his four college seasons, to becoming a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2015. Or, beyond that, how the kid who never wanted to stop hitting — who held on tight to playing first and third base through his early 20s — wound up devoting his life to pitching with games on the line.
The righty has trouble deciding whether he chose this path or it chose him. Either way, twisted destiny or not, he’s become the surprise key for a bullpen that needs any help it can get. Rainey came to the organization last December in a trade that sent starter Tanner Roark to the Reds. It was a money-saving move for the Nationals, designed to clear space for other parts, but it did net them a power reliever coming off a rough year in Cincinnati. So Rainey started this season with the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies, worked on throwing strikes, and waited until the Nationals’ ongoing search for reliable relievers led to him.
And then he arrived in Washington just in time.
“Tanner has always had it, starting with a fastball that you can’t teach,” said Mike Romano, a former professional pitcher who began training Rainey when he was 13 years old. “All he’s ever needed is a chance to show that.”
First — before he was drafted, before he struggled with the Reds, before now — Rainey had to create that chance for himself. He was, like any talented teenager, interested in both hitting and pitching when high school began. Offense came first, and playing third base, but he still threw at least two bullpen sessions a month with Romano. By his senior year at St. Paul’s School in Covington, La., Rainey would moonlight as his team’s closer. The calculus was simple, and it really hasn’t changed: He had a really good arm. And so, every once in a while, he’d use it on the mound.
But he wasn’t recruited as a two-way player until throwing in front of college coaches at a showcase that spring. There he was spotted by recruiters from Southeastern Louisiana University, a local school, and they signed him to do both. That’s when he first worked with Daniel Latham, now the pitching coach at Tulane, and Latham saw flashes of what Rainey could be.
“He’d struggle with his command, as any young pitcher does, but then his stuff would just blow guys away,” Latham said. “He’d walk off the field and I’d tell him, ‘Hey, keep doing that, okay? Just do that again.’ ”
Rainey had limited opportunities in two seasons at Southeastern Louisiana, split between pitching and hitting, so he transferred to Division II Western Alabama for his junior and senior years. If he had only two seasons left of baseball — not just for college, but for life — he figured he’d at least spend them on the field. He’d begin games in the field, either at first or third, and then go straight to the mound in a save situation. He didn’t even change gloves. He hit 19 homers as a senior, pacing the offense from the middle of the order, and his fastball velocity climbed into the upper-90s. That helped him to a 1.29 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings as the 2015 draft neared.
That’s what sold the Reds on taking him in the second round. He had the swing-and-miss stuff teams hunt for at all levels. He also didn’t have much mileage on his arm.
“He’s not like most kids who came up throwing every weekend in high school, then threw 80 to 100 innings each year in college,” Romano said. “His arm, when you think about it, is really, really fresh still.”
He’s now getting tested by the Nationals, thrust into a high-leverage role, trusted with situations that were supposed to be handled by veterans Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough. Instead, Rainey’s made nine of his 13 appearances in the seventh or later, less than a year after allowing 19 earned runs in just seven innings for the Reds. He had a 24.43 ERA before he was sent back to the minors. His walk rate, 15.4 batters per nine innings, was a major red flag. It made him appear as a throwaway in that December trade.
But he has since found his command, and become consistent with it, right as Washington’s bullpen is inching in the right direction. And that’s no coincidence. Rainey’s success, starting with an ability to throw his slider in all counts, has allowed other relievers to take a breath and settle into loose roles. He first became a full-time pitcher at 22 years old. He doesn’t spend time considering just how unlikely this is.
“At this point, with how the last few years have gone, I feel like I’ve only ever been a reliever,” Rainey said. “It’s hard to remember being anything else."