CHICAGO - For Tanner Roark and Ian Krol, two rookie relievers, the Nationals' four games at Wrigley Field this week don't just represent four more big league contests that they can put under their belts.
They represent the realization of a childhood dream.
Roark and Krol both grew up in the suburbs outside of Chicago - Roark in Wilmington, Ill., 75 minutes from Wrigley, and Krol in Naperville, Ill., 50 minutes from one of the most historic ballparks in baseball.
Both were huge Cubs fans growing up. They'd watch games on TV, make trips to Wrigley with friends, and hope that one day they'd be able to step on the field in a big league uniform and play with their backs to the ivy-covered walls in the outfield.
With the Nationals in Chicago to play the Cubs this week, that time is now.
"It's gonna be awesome," Roark said yesterday, seated in the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta, a big smile across his face. "I'm excited. I don't know how loud it's gonna be. I think we might have more Nationals fans there than Cubs fans between me and Krol. I don't know. Very excited. Can't wait to get out there on the mound."
The Nationals' trip to the Windy City is perfectly timed for Roark, who was called up by the Nats for his first stint in the majors less than two weeks ago. Roark has never played on the field at Wrigley before in any all-star games or showcases, so his first time on the mound at the iconic ballpark will be as a major leaguer.
The right-hander has excelled with the Nats so far, working 10 innings without allowing an earned run, and now he'll try and keep that streak going in front of family and friends.
How many family members and friends? How about 102? That's how many tickets Roark's brother has secured for Wednesday's game.
"My brother's planning it out," Roark said. "They got a party bus with all that stuff for Wednesday. Just a bunch of people together. He's like the middle man. There's going to be a bunch of people out in the bleachers. And I guess my best friend's dad got like 30 tickets right behind the bullpen, so that should be interesting, too."
Krol is taking a more laid-back approach to the whole week, snagging 20 tickets for family members, many of which will be there for all four games, and letting everyone else take care of their seats themselves.
"I told all my friends they've got to buy their tickets because I'm not dealing with that," Krol said with a chuckle. "And second of all, I wanted it to be real chill, real laid back. I don't want it to be too hectic. I don't want to make it too stressful on myself. So everybody who knows me, everybody who I know, they'll come to the game. I'm just gonna enjoy it, take it all in. Hopefully no one gets mad at me if I can't say hi."
Unlike Roark, Krol has twice played at Wrigley Field before: in the 2007 Under Armour All-American Game, when he was a junior in high school, and in 2010, when he was pitching for the Single-A Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League (an Oakland Athletics affiliate). The Cougars have a yearly game at Wrigley against the Peoria Cheifs - a Cubs affiliate - and a fired-up Krol was tabbed to start that game with plenty of familiar faces in attendance.
It didn't go as well as he hoped.
"I gave up like two home runs, four runs," Krol said. "Oh, man. That was like the worst outing I had that year."
The 22-year-old lefty hopes for better results this time, although he knows he'll have to manage similar emotions.
"It's gonna be nuts. It's gonna be a complete adrenaline rush," Krol said. "I probably couldn't even describe to you what it's gonna be like. ... This is the ultimate goal for me. This is the end of the road. (These are) the elite players of the world. Obviously, it's an accomplishment, but at the same time, it's our job and we just have to stay on top of it. I can't enjoy myself too much. I've got to keep it on an even keel with the having fun and playing. It should be fun. I'm excited. Really excited."
Same goes for Roark, who was giddy just talking about the opportunity.
"I was just thinking the other day: I've grown up a Cubs fan and now I'm actually gonna pitch at Wrigley. So it's a dream come true," he said. "My first dream come true was, of course, get to the major leagues. Now I'm gonna be pitching in Wrigley as a major leaguer. It feels surreal. Wouldn't trade it for nothing."