- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2015

The ever-changing nature of his role no longer affects Washington Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark. Pitch a few innings at a moment’s notice? Sure. Rejoin the starting rotation? No problem. Re-adjust to pitching out of the bullpen? Fine.

“Whatever role, I feel like I can do it,” Roark said Thursday. “And I have so far this year, which is pretty crazy.”

Another change is on the way in the next week, with a once-depleted Nationals rotation set to become whole. Doug Fister rejoined the Nationals on Thursday to start against the Tampa Bay Rays, and Stephen Strasburg is on track to return to the rotation early next week. Their returns will likely bump Friday’s starter, Joe Ross, back to the minor leagues and send Roark back to the bullpen, where he began the season.

Roark figures to fill the long-relief role vacated by Craig Stammen, who had season-ending surgery in April. Should another Nationals‘ starter succumb to injury, the 28-year-old said he will be ready to start again. His role won’t dictate his approach.

“I think that’s the overriding factor. He just doesn’t care,” manager Matt Williams said. “If it’s an inning, he’s ready to pitch that inning. If it’s three, he’s ready for that. And if it’s a start, he’s ready for that, so he enjoys the opportunity to pitch, whenever it is and wherever it is, and he’s proven that he can handle all of them. That’s mentality more than anything — just not caring what the situation is and getting outs. That’s how he views it.”

Roark was one of Washington’s most consistent starters in 2014, before the team signed marquee free agent Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in January. When Scherzer arrived, Roark shifted to a relief role. He’s worked as a long reliever, pitching three-plus innings in two wins, and as a situational late-innings arm, even picking up his first major-league save on May 4. He has a 2.66 ERA as a reliever this season.

Following injuries to Fister and Strasburg, Roark went 3-0 in five starts with 18 strikeouts, five walks and a 3.86 ERA. He held the Rays to one earned run over seven innings in his most recent start on Tuesday.

“My last one felt the best I’ve felt,” he said. “I’ll just use that whenever I get in the bullpen, build off that.”

Though Roark helped solidify Washington’s starting rotation, it also put the bullpen at a bit of a disadvantage. Without their jack-of-all-trades, the Nationals had to use a number of inexperienced pitchers, including A.J. Cole and Taylor Hill, in a long relief role, with mixed results.

“I don’t know if it’s caused issues, but it’s certainly a luxury to know that Tanner can do all of those things,” Williams said. “And if we do have an issue like we had with Doug, or Stras, then he inserts back into the rotation and can do great and pitch well for us, so it’s more a luxury than an issue.”

In all likelihood, the instability of Roark’s role will end next season. With Fister and Jordan Zimmermann each in the final year of their respective contracts, the Nationals will almost certainly have a spot to fill in their rotation. Roark has proven to be both capable and deserving, and he is not eligible for free agency until 2020.

In the meantime, Roark will continue to fill the role he’s given, whatever that role may be. It could change again next week, or next month, or as the playoffs near. For now, it means a return to the bullpen.

“It is what it is,” Roark said. “I kind of expected it, although they haven’t announced anything yet. It is what it is. You can’t control it, so like I said before — it happened earlier in spring training and everything like that, I was in the pen — I’m fine with it.”

NOTES: Strasburg played catch on flat ground Thursday afternoon, one day after making his first minor-league rehabilitation start. Williams said Strasburg felt good and will be re-evaluated after throwing a bullpen session in the next few days…. Aaron Barrett, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a right bicep strain, has yet to begin a throwing program, Williams said.

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