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Nationals’ Tanner Rainey takes Tommy John rehab one toss at a time


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Nearly all of the pitchers who have arrived at Washington Nationals spring training have thrown off a mound. Some have started facing hitters as they build toward the start of Grapefruit League games this weekend and, eventually, Opening Day on March 30. Tanner Rainey is on a much different timeline.

Monday kicked off the third week of throwing on flat ground as the reliever works his way back from a right ulnar collateral ligament sprain that ended his 2022 season in July. After having Tommy John surgery in August, Rainey couldn’t throw for six months. Two weeks ago, he made 25 light tosses from 60 feet three times. Last week, he boosted that number to 50 before making 75 throws Monday, the first of three sessions over seven days.

“The biggest part is trying to stay under control and not do too much at first,” Rainey said. “So I feel like I’m slowing down occasionally and I kind of lose [a throw] here or there. But, for the most part, I’m just playing catch. It feels fine.”

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Rainey joined the Nationals ahead of their 2019 World Series season as one of the bullpen’s younger arms. After posting a 2.66 ERA in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he couldn’t stay healthy in 2021 and struggled mightily. But last season, he took over as the closer and recorded eight scoreless outings to start the year. He finished with a 3.30 ERA and 12 saves in 16 opportunities.

“He’s kind of a veteran, really, now,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s got great relationships with [Sean] Doolittle and [Kyle] Finnegan and all those guys. … He sits in the meetings, wants to listen, wants to observe so that, when he’s ready to go, he’s ready. … He’s working his butt off to get back.”

When Rainey had surgery, he was given a return timeline of 12 to 14 months. He rehabbed in his home state of Louisiana five days per week, with sessions starting at 7 a.m. After therapy, he would go through a normal workout routine that didn’t involve throwing. Despite those 2½-hour sessions keeping him busy, he called the offseason “pretty boring.”

The 30-year-old knows he won’t be back until the second half of the season. He’s targeting Aug. 3 — the anniversary of his surgery.

But Rainey said he isn’t looking too far ahead; if he suffers a setback, he doesn’t want to be too upset. Instead, he plans to take advantage of the next six months so he can come back better, physically and mentally.

When Rainey returns, there’s no guarantee he will be back in the same role. Martinez said a handful of relievers could step in as the closer and keep the job. Finnegan had 11 saves in each of his past two seasons. Hunter Harvey showed flashes of potential last year when healthy. Martinez also pointed to Doolittle and Carl Edwards Jr.

Rainey has watched his teammates throw bullpen sessions, often blending in with the coaches trying to make roster decisions.

“It’s good to see everybody come back in,” he said of his fellow relievers. “Obviously I’m not out there throwing bullpens … but I still try to get out there and watch all the guys that were here last year and the guys we brought in. … See what they’ve done in the offseason, whether it’s improving pitches or coming back in ready to go.”

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All the while, Rainey will keep taking baby steps toward pitching in a major league game again, even if that seems far away. Next week: 25 throws at 60 feet and 25 throws at 75 feet, three days per week. The plan is to increase the distance to 90 feet, then 105, then 120. If Rainey reaches 120 feet with no setbacks, he will get back on the mound to begin the next phase of the process.

Rainey laughed as he pointed out that this is the longest he has gone without playing since “before travel ball started — maybe 10, 11, 12 years old?”

“So it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve gone more than three or four months without playing,” he added. “It’ll definitely be an adjustment.”

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