- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2014

Far from a lock to even make the Nationals’ rotation entering spring training, pitcher Tanner Roark has suddenly become indispensable.

He showed that again on Wednesday afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds after an overlooked effort in what became a 2-1 loss. Roark allowed one earned run in six innings.

“He pitched great again,” Washington manager Matt Williams said.

On Wednesday, Roark wouldn’t concede that his day was over even after rain showers struck with two outs in the top of the sixth inning. Instead, he threw 10 or 15 pitches every 15 minutes under the watchful eye of pitching coach Steve McCatty and was on the mound again when the weather finally cleared after an hour delay to retire the final batter of the sixth. He was even upset Williams didn’t let him back out for the seventh.

Injuries haven’t spared the Nats’ starting pitchers any more than the rest of the roster. And with Gio Gonzalez on the disabled list as of May 18, they need the back end of the rotation to pick up the slack. But any pressure to keep that unit’s success rolling even without Gonzalez hasn’t been internalized. Roark doesn’t see it all falling on his shoulders at all.

“We have a good farm system and [rookie Blake] Treinen is coming up here to pitch [Thursday],” Roark said. “He did well his first start here at home and we have all the confidence in the world in him. … That’s how it’s been.”

But Roark, 27, is the one pitching above expectations. He has started nine games for Washington this season. His ERA is 3.42. He has a complete-game shutout under his belt (April 26 vs. San Diego). He has struck out 26 batters and walked nine. Other than a pair of rough starts against Atlanta and Philadelphia, Roark has given the Nats a chance to win every time out.

That performance from a No. 5 starter has turned from a luxury to a necessity now, however. Washington hasn’t had its full rotation in place much of the season. Doug Fister, acquired in the December trade with Detroit, missed the first seven weeks with a strained lat muscle. Just nine days after Fister finally made his first appearance on May 9, Gonzalez went on the disabled list with shoulder soreness.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way entering spring training. Incumbent Ross Detwiler was expected to hold off the competition for the No. 5 starting spot. He had the pedigree and the track record to expect that job to be his. Instead, Detwiler, much to his dismay, was shifted to the bullpen 12 days before the season opener in New York against the Mets.

That winnowed the competition to Roark and Taylor Jordan with veteran Chris Young a long shot. But when Fister suffered that strained lat muscle late in camp — following earlier elbow inflammation — he headed to the disabled list and Roark and Jordan made the Opening Day roster.

Jordan struggled after a strong first start, however, and was soon back in the minors. Roark, meanwhile, cruised in his first outing of the year on April 3 in New York (six innings, two earned runs) and at times has been dominant. He pitched into the eighth inning with just two hits allowed on the road against Oakland, which has the majors’ best record, before the bullpen blew the lead in a 4-3 loss on May 10.

“He has [guts], man. He goes out there and gives it his all and gives us an opportunity to win every time,” Nats center fielder Denard Span said. “All of our pitchers this year have been going good. …You can’t put any blame on them.”

That’s not entirely accurate. Washington’s rotation so far ranks right in the middle at 15th overall in the majors with a 3.87 ERA entering Thursday. Stephen Strasburg (3.38) and Jordan Zimmermann (3.70) have been good, though not consistently dominant. Gonzalez (4.62 ERA) hasn’t looked himself in recent weeks. Fister had a bad initial start, but has been excellent in the two he’s made since.

But Strasburg and Zimmermann don’t have to be perfect if Roark continues to pitch this way. With Fister back, too, they can allow Gonzalez to take his time. He is expected to throw a bullpen session on Friday in Pittsburgh.

“Personally, I just want to do the same thing I’ve always done,” Roark said. “No need to change anything, you know?”

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