It is the moment every playoff team never wants to have happen.
The smack of handshakes, bear hugs and pats on the back in any other situation would be a welcome sight, but the sounds of these gestures after a Game 5 loss are eerily hard to take.
Harder to stomach than a loss in the playoffs might be the feeling of not being called on to contribute when you were set to start a pivotal season-saving game, then ended up not being used at all.
Such was the plight of right-hander Tanner Roark as he sat at his locker following the Game 5 loss to the Cubs in October’s National League Division Series. He did not pitch at all in the five-game series.
“It was definitely disappointing,” Roark said at Sunday’s Nationals Winterfest. “I was not happy. But like I said, we had Max (Scherzer) ready to go. Gio (Gonzalez) was fresh and Gio had a hell of a year. So it is what it is. We ended up losing. It is what it is, you can’t do much about it.”
Roark was ready to start Game 4 and he had extra motivation. He had made the all the baseball preparations he needed to go out and pitch. But then he saw something that got him charged up even more.
“It was pretty emotional for me, just going back and forth, not knowing, knowing,” Roark said. “I was ready to go ... that morning, to pitch, and people were on the TV talking that I wasn’t good enough of something. It was pissing me off. I was going to use that as motivation.
“But then I got to the field and it just didn’t work out that way. Stephen (Strasburg) had a hell of a game anyway. Seven scoreless isn’t bad. You can’t be mad about that. It was mixed emotions. It’s part of the game, and part of what I’ve learned in this process.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said seeing the way Roark bounced back from a tough first half and showed what kind of pitcher he could be in the second half of the season was a demonstration of his overall makeup.
“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.”
Roark demonstrated his resiliency with much better post-All-Star break results than the beginning of the season. Prior to mid-July, Roark struggled to a 6-6 record and a 5.27 ERA. After the All-Star break, he went 7-5 with a 3.90 ERA. He dropped his batting average against from .278 to .223. His strikeouts per nine innings in the first half of the season was 0.79, compared to 1.06 after July 14.
He said one major key to his change in play after the break wasn’t fatigue from the World Baseball Classic, but rather an alteration in his mental preparation before a start.
“Just not thinking,” Roark said. “Not being inside my head thinking I need to change stuff. Just trusting my stuff and being the old Tanner that we all know and love, right? That’s what it was. Just stop thinking. Trust it. Let it happen.”
Roark said the WBC and not getting that much time off last offseason didn’t play into the slow start. But without the WBC to prepare for this season, his offseason workouts are currently at a more methodical pace.
“I’m taking it slower. I feel like way behind, but I’m actually not,” Roark said. “I think I’m way ahead, still. Which is good. I haven’t started throwing or anything, so that’s a plus - just a tennis ball off a wall. I feel like I’m ready to go, and at least I wasn’t hurt during that WBC. That’s all I care about. I didn’t get hurt all of last year, so knock on wood.”
But Roark is continually motivated to prove naysayers wrong. He did it after losing 17 games at the Triple-A level in 2012 and he will look to perform well again this time after not getting a shot in the 2017 playoffs. But he will not hang his head or feel sorry for himself. That’s not a part of his makeup.
“You obviously have to take a positive away from everything. 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,” Roark reflected. “I’d say I’m mentally stronger, and just probably not worried about that many things anymore -- just to be out there on the mound, and relax. Be more relaxed.”