Watching television commentators disparage his ability allowed Tanner Roark to pick up fuel the morning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series. He was slated to pitch the game after much back-and-forth prompted by Stephen Strasburg’s illness. Roark grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, so pitching in Wrigley Field with the Nationals trailing 2-1 in the series carried even more weight.
“It was pissing me off. I was going to use that as motivation,” Roark said recently. “But then I got to the field and it just didn’t work out that way.”
Strasburg became healthy enough to pich. He threw seven dominant innings. Roark did not throw a pitch in the series, being passed over multiple times during it. Then-manager Dusty Baker never told Roark why he did not pitch — starting Game 5 at home seemed a possible opportunity — and the whole experience caused Roark to be irritated and understanding.
“It was definitely disappointing,” Roark said. “I was not happy. Like I said, we had Max [Scherzer] ready to go. Gio [Gonzalez] was fresh. Gio had a hell of a year. It is what it is.”
It was a strange year for Roark. He was again the team’s No. 4 starter and the only one in the rotation that had to deal with participating in the World Baseball Classic before the season began. Throughout the year, Roark and Baker thought the odd scheduling of the WBC affected Roark’s pitching, which took a step back. A season after again being moved from the bullpen to the rotation, Roark’s ERA went from 2.83 to 4.67.
Roark joined the Nationals’ three other main starters by using his fastball much less in 2017 than 2016. He used his changeup and curveball more often than in the past instead of his fastball, which has been his prime weapon; particularly his running two-seam fastball.
“You always got to take a positive away from anything,” Roark said. “It wasn’t the way I wanted to finish the year, not pitching at all, but with the group of guys that we have, the pitching staff that we have, I’d put them out there any time. I’d say I got mentally stronger and probably not worry about many things anymore, just to be out there on the mound more relaxed.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who is about to enter arbitration negotiations with Roark, 31, heaped praise on what he sees as a no-nonsense, reliable pitcher.
“You know, Tanner is the most underappreciated player we’ve got,” Rizzo said. “He’s an ultimate team player. This guy never says a negative word. He’s all about the team. And he’s the type of guy I love having on the mound. You know he’s going to leave everything out there, and he’s been very successful in his career. We hope that continues. We control him for a long time, and we’re looking forward to him having a big season.”
Washington’s rotation is defined among the front four, though there are questions after Scherzer and Strasburg. Gonzalez had his second-best since season coming to the Nationals in 2012, countering four consecutive seasons of a rise in ERA. Who will Gonzalez be next season?
Roark, too, has had fluctuating results. He was potent as a starter in 2014. In 2015, he, oddly, was shifted to the bullpen, where he struggled. Roark was back to being one of the better starters in the league in 2016. Then, last season’s strange schedule and mixed results produced his worst season among his five in the major leagues.
Behind Gonzalez and Roark is even an larger question. The spot for their fifth starter is wide open. It could be anyone from A.J Cole to Erick Fedde to Austin Voth. Or, Washington could sign a veteran before or during spring training to pitch for the spot.
As it stands in December, Roark feels behind, though he is not. He had to restructure his preparation last season in order to be ready for the WBC. He has only thrown a tennis ball against a wall so far this offseason, one in which he is able to maintain a regular routine before spring training. He hopes that returns him to his regular results, too.