Nationals starter Tanner Roark arrived at Spring Training more than seven months ago with high hopes and little job security.
Though he had been impressive in limited appearances last season, Roark knew he and Taylor Jordan were in the same boat. So the two young right-handers competed for one spot in Viera, Florida. That one spot became two when Doug Fister went down with a lat strain.
But upon his return, a choice had to be made. Jordan was demoted and Roark stayed.
In the months since, Roark has solidified his place in Washington’s rotation and emerged as one of its most consistent starters. He continued to show why Tuesday night, allowing just five hits and two earned runs to lead the Nationals to a 4-2 win over the New York Mets.
Though Roark has amassed 15 wins this season with an impressive 2.85 earned-run average, his future role on the team is again uncertain. Manager Matt Williams will only bring four starting pitchers into the postseason, with the fifth likely relegated to the bullpen. The decision will probably come down to Roark and Gio Gonzalez.
“We understand that,” Roark said. “They make the decisions and whenever our name is called, we pitch. That’s what my mentality is, and that’s what everybody else’s mentality is.”
If the job is still available to be won, the 27-year-old has stated a strong case over the past few months. On Tuesday, he didn’t walk a batter and struck out one over 6 1/3 innings. He worked through at least six innings for the 15th time in his past 16 starts, and allowed two earned runs or fewer for the 10th time during that span.
Roark’s ERA ranked 12th in the National League at the conclusion of the game.
“It’s just the fact that he can throw multiple pitches for strikes,” Williams said. “If he gets in an issue out there or has lost command of one of his pitches, he can go to another. For him, that’s key. He doesn’t blow the radar gun up by any stretch, but he makes pitches and works both sides of the plate.”
Roark gave up a leadoff double to Matt den Dekker on his first pitch of the evening but then retired his next 12 batters. He gave up two more doubles in a span of three at-bats in the fifth, resulting in one run, and a single in the seventh, which came around to score after he had left the game.
While it was by no means a spectacular outing, it was another effective start in a long line of them. Roark said his consistent mindset has been the key to his consistent performance.
“Keep throwing strikes. Getting ahead of guys,” he said. “I’ve probably bored you guys to death with the same old answers I give you. That’s really what it is: getting strike one and keeping the hitters off balance.”
With the current alignment of Washington’s rotation, both Roark and Gonzalez would have one start remaining in the regular season. Gonzalez is slated to start Wednesday against New York, and Roark is in line to start the season finale against the Marlins.
Though the results in this final week might not completely alter Williams’ decision, Roark’s performance Tuesday was another reminder of his capabilities.
“It makes for tough decisions, but those are good, tough decisions,” Williams said. “You would not want that decision made for you this time of year. You want to be able to say, ‘Boy this is a hard one.’ That’s a good thing for us. They’re all pitching really well.”
First baseman Adam LaRoche, whose three-run homer to right field in the fifth inning provided most of Tuesday’s offense, agreed.
“All the guys we’ve got deserve that spot,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s not my decision.”