Marty Niland: Guys like Roark, who come out of nowhere, are what’s great about baseball

The #Nats sector of the Twitterverse was abuzz Saturday as Tanner Roark stroked the canvas that was the mound at Nationals Park. When he had finished his masterpiece, a complete-game, three-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres, the accolades came quickly and lasted longer than the 2 hours, 19 minutes it took the 27-year-old to dispatch the Padres.

The most prescient among those followed here came from @TheNatidude, who tweeted, “You can see Harper, Stras & Rendon coming a mile away, but stories like Roark’s are what make sports great.” Indeed, when a 25th-round draft choice not only makes the team, but outshines more heralded and higher-priced talent, it’s a testament to everything beautiful about competition in general and baseball in particular.

None of the aforementioned stars, nor any of the big guns in the Nationals rotation, have put up anything in recent months like the 9-1 record and 1.98 earned run average this career minor leaguer has compiled since being called up last August. In that one loss, a game in Atlanta on a highly unusual seven days of rest, Roark gave up five earned runs in six innings. Remove that outlier, and you’ve got numbers comparable to anyone who has ever won a Cy Young Award.

Is it too early to put Roark in that company? Absolutely. But in April 1981, how many people believed an undrafted rookie who had done some nice work in the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen the previous season could be in the National League Cy Young conversation with future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan? After racking up five shutouts to win his first eight games, Fernando Valenzuela went on to beat them all for the coveted award. He also became the first man to win the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year as he helped the Dodgers to a World Series title.

In 1976, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought a non-roster invitee who’d been drafted in the 10th round could become one of the best pitchers in the game. But Detroit’s Mark Fidrych wound up starting the All-Star game for the American League and wound up 19-9, finishing second in the Cy Young voting to three-time winner Jim Palmer.

In 1985, a 19th-round draft pick named Bret Saberhagen, who’d compiled a 10-11 record the year before, won 20 games, the Cy Young Award and the World Series MVP Award when he pitched a shutout to secure the title for the Kansas City Royals.

And for those who think such things don’t happen anymore, consider Mark Buehrle. Selected in the 39th round of the 1998 draft, 1,139th overall, all he has done over the course of his 15-year major league career is win 190 games, throw two no-hitters - including a perfect game - and win a World Series title with the Chicago White Sox. At 4-1 with a 2.16 ERA this season, he’s still one of the top pitchers in the American League.

Plenty of other players have come out of nowhere to become stars, win awards and lead their teams to championships. Some stay in the limelight for years, others fade quickly. The point here is not to compare Roark to any of them, nor is it to predict greatness for him. It’s not really fair to do so. After more than five years in the minor leagues and an unlikely run of success in the bigs, the path he follows will be his own.

The one certainty is that anything can happen, so we should enjoy Roark’s ride, no matter where it takes him and the Nationals. Roark may no longer have status as a rookie in the major leagues, but he’s bursting onto the scene as if he did. The stories of players like Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon have been told many times over, but now the baseball world can get to know Roark. For now, at least, he’s standing as tall as anyone.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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