Tanner Roark descended the mound after the seventh inning Tuesday night and saw Davey Johnson reach out his hand. The Washington Nationals’ rookie, whose path from unheralded minor leaguer to big league sensation continued on its merry way, looked back at him.
“You sure? I’m through?” Roark asked Johnson.
The manager smiled. Roark had already thrown more pitches than he ever had before in a major league game. Working his pitches in, and down in the zone, he’d held the Atlanta Braves to two measly hits. Yes, Johnson told him. You’re through.
After the Nationals sealed a 4-0 victory Tuesday night — to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Braves after an emotional, improbable 6-5 walk-off in the matinee — Johnson practically strutted into his post-game press conference.
“Well how ‘bout Tanner Roark?” Johnson asked as he sat down. “Pretty good.”
For all that’d happened on Tuesday, all that had taken place in the Nationals’ neighborhood in the previous 48 hours, they could ask for little more than the results they got. A heart-stopping victory against an infallible closer in the first game, and a sterling performance from an unheralded rookie in the second.
The day began with solemnity, an emotional morning of remembrance for those lost in the mass shooting that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard just a day earlier. And the Nationals, who donned Navy ballcaps during pre- and post-game, just wanted to do their part.
“There’s more to life than baseball,” said right-hander Dan Haren. “I think everyone in here knows that.”
But baseball was what they could control. And in beating the Braves twice in the same day, an opponent that has so thoroughly dominated them this season, they did the best they could. They ensured Braves could not celebrate a division title on their home field.
“We definitely didn’t want to see that,” said center fielder Denard Span, who extended his hitting streak to 28 games — the longest such streak in the major leagues this season — with a single to left in the fifth inning.
“We didn’t want to see them jumping around on our field. They can do that somewhere else, not here in Washington this year.”
The Nationals’ playoff standing changed only slightly, though. They moved to 4.5 games back of the Cincinnati Reds, who demolished the Houston Astros in a 10-0 victory, and still face an uphill battle. In reality, they can maybe afford to lose one — or at most two — of their 11 remaining games.
“It’s tough relying on another team to lose games,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who 2-for-4 in the nightcap and drove in a key insurance run in their three-run eighth. “But that’s the position we’re in and we’re playing as good as we’ve played all year. Hopefully it’s not too late.”
“It’s really not up to us,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who clubbed his 25th home run of the season to give the Nationals some breathing room in that eighth inning. “We obviously have to win. If we don’t win nothing happens anyway. But you try and win the game that day and hope you get some help from someone.
“I’m proud of these guys because I think we could’ve shut it down a little while ago. We decided to go the other way and we’ve been playing great baseball. Hopefully it’ll work out but if it doesn’t, the character of this team, it’s been a pretty special last two weeks for us.”
Nationals Park pulsed with intensity on Tuesday night, the fans roaring with every positive and groaning when appropriate. It was a brisk September evening — the kind that made you wonder if there were many more nights for the fans to bundle themselves up and fill the seats here.
Roark pounded strikes, and the Nationals’ offense gave him just enough support. Batters that were fortunate enough to make it to first base shook their heads and vented to LaRoche about how difficult Roark was to face.
“He wasn’t missing with any pitches over the plate, it seemed like,” said Braves catcher Gerald Laird. “When he was going away, he was throwing that little two-seamer back door, when he was coming in he was running that two-seamer in on your hands, and he had that little slider working.
“Tonight it seemed like he was hitting his spots and wasn’t making any mistakes. I know (Freddie Freeman) was saying he was starting it at him and running it back over. When he’s doing that it’s hard to pull the trigger.”
In lowering his ERA to 1.08 after 41.2 major league innings, Roark struck out six.
Even he can admit he is surprising himself.
“I would have to go with ‘Yeah,’” he said with a sheepish grin.
“Tanner today was one of the best performances I’ve seen all year out of any of our guys,” said LaRoche. “Fun to play behind, quick game, quick innings. He was just dominant. That was awesomeâ€¦ It’s not smoke and mirrors right now.”
Johnson said he’d put him ahead of Taylor Jordan on the manager’s personal version of the organizational depth chart, though admitting next year’s rotation would not be his decision, and invoked the name of Greg Maddux in praising Roark’s command and the way he pitches.
It was, as Zimmerman put it, “A good finish to a really good day.” The fact that it came after a terrible one, perhaps, made it only slightly sweeter.
After 19 straight games against teams with losing records, in which they went 14-5, the Nationals barreled through the idea that they were only winning because of the caliber of their opponent. They beat a very good team, and they beat them twice.
“I think it sends a good message over to Atlanta that we’re not going anywhere,” Johnson said. “We struggled a little bit early, but we’re certainly a capable ballclub and we’ve got the talent to compete with anybody.”