The Washington Post
Nats’ Finnegan filling roles big, small
atlanta — No, Kyle Finnegan shouldn’t be carrying that camouflage bag before each game. Typically, the bullpen backpack, full of weighted balls and workout bands, is the responsibility of a wide-eyed rookie reliever. But after handling it in 2020, his first season in the majors, Finnegan has kept the straps on his shoulders, calling the duty “my baby, in a weird way, because that’s how I came into the league.”
Never mind that he and his wife, Rachel, welcomed twins, Cooper and Carson, last week. Or that Finnegan, 30, was named the Nationals’ closer once Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson left at the trade deadline. He is, at once, the bullpen’s most important arm and a subject of self-imposed light hazing. It is quite the illustration of where the rebuilding Nationals stand.
“I have tried, over and over, to take the bag from him,” said Sam Clay, a 28-year-old rookie. “But he says he wants to carry it. Pitch the ninth, act like a new guy still, fine by me.”
Clay isn’t the only reliever with slightly less experience than Finnegan. Mason Thompson, acquired from the San Diego Padres for Hudson, debuted in June. Alberto Baldonado, a 28-year-old lefty, debuted in late August. Patrick Murphy, acquired off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays in mid-august, has 19 career appearances to Finnegan’s 84. Austin Voth is in his first year as a full-time reliever.
But with the backpack, Finnegan partly feels like he has no choice. While sidelined by a hamstring injury in June, Finnegan estimated that his bullpen mates forgot the bag in half the games. Clay quickly disputed this. Then he thought some more and realized that Finnegan was probably right. So on Thursday night, ahead of the series finale against the Braves at Truist Park, they stuck to their usual routine, with Finnegan appearing as the kid of an unproven group.
Since July 30, when he was given the ninth for the rest of 2021, at the very least, Finnegan has yielded two earned runs on 13 hits in 16 innings entering play Friday. Opponents have a .220 batting average, .303 onbase percentage and .373 slugging percentage against him. He has walked seven batters and struck out 13. The Mets have handed him two lowlights, with Pete Alonso taking him deep for a walk-off homer at Citi Field, then Francisco Lindor tagging him for a game-winning homer at Nationals Park. A highlight, though, was Finnegan logging two scoreless innings in a 4-3 win over the Mets on Monday.
On this roster, it is logical for him to get the most important spots. But the Nationals also consider him a middle reliever or setup man for a contending team of the future. When they signed Finnegan to a big league contract in December 2019, he had yet to pitch in the majors. That meant he joined the Nationals with six years of club control remaining. The next four, then, make him a crucial part of their immediate and not-so-immediate plans.
“I talk to him a lot before a series, and I’ ll tell him, ‘Hey, if it’s this group of guys, we might need you in the eighth inning and we’ll do something else.’ But he understands,” Manager Dave Martinez said of continuing to test Finnegan in different situations. “Moving forward, I think he’s shown us that in high-leverage situations he’s pretty good, and we’re probably going to utilize him in the future in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning, depending on what happens.”
As Finnegan inched into the majors, Tanner Rainey was often referred to as Washington’s next closer. But Rainey’s season has been one injury after another. He missed a bulk of spring training with a strained muscle near his right collarbone. He missed a stretch between May and June when he had to quarantine as an unvaccinated close contact to a teammate who tested positive for the coronavirus. He missed almost all of July with a stress reaction in his right tibia, returned for one appearance and was sent down to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
Rainey then missed more time with a right side injury before he pitched a scoreless inning for the Red Wings on Thursday. And when he was healthy this year, his fastball-slider combo took a giant step back. He allowed 22 earned runs, six homers and 21 walks in just 26 innings with the Nationals. Finnegan has permitted less damage in more than double the work.
The key to his solid year, save a small handful of hiccups? Finnegan’s go-to is a mid-to-high90s sinker that has touched 99 mph. He runs it in against right-handed hitters. Conversely, he throws it to dart away from lefties. But after flashes of success in 2020, Finnegan wanted to be smarter with his splitter, a third pitch that complements his polished sinker and slider. The best use of it, he explained this summer, is dropping straight down to unsuspecting lefties.
The splitter counts for about 10 percent of his total pitches. Finnegan prefers it to leave hitters surprised.
“They know what I do best,” Finnegan said. “I’m going to attack with my fastball. I want to set up my slider. You’re going to see pitches in the zone from me. But if I have one other option to put in their head, then that’s good enough. That can go a long way. I really just want to help this team, man. Any adjustment or anything comes down to that.”
Yeah, he sounded like someone who may pick up a voluntary chore.