Rusty Roark still finds a way to pitch Nationals to victory

Two innings into his season debut, Tanner Roark might well have been forced into changing his goals for the night. His pitch count at 46, his command unusually off, he could have gone into survival mode and hoped simply to reach the fifth inning without the game getting out of hand.

Fast-forward an hour or so, and there was Roark walking off the mound to a hearty ovation from the crowd at Nationals Park, having retired 13 of the last 14 batters he faced and having turned what could have been a disastrous start into a quality start.

Roark didn’t just survive. He thrived, fully earning his win in the Nationals’ 6-4 victory over the Marlins.

“I think after the first two innings, six innings (and) two runs, I think we all would’ve signed up for that,” teammate Daniel Murphy said. “I thought he did a fantastic job.”

It has become a hallmark of a Roark start, the ability to adjust mid-game and still emerge with strong results even when he isn’t entirely sharp. And it was all on display tonight.

Roark-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgThere were reasons for concern entering this start, given Roark’s atypical spring. Due to both his participation in the World Baseball Classic and then a rainout of Friday’s exhibition game at Nationals Park, the right-hander had barely gotten enough work to open the season feeling confident and sharp. Add it all up, and he had pitched only 10 2/3 innings in a month.

And he looked like early on in his regular season debut. Roark walked two batters in the top of the first, eventually letting two runs score on Marcel Ozuna’s bases-loaded single. Then he hit two batters in the top of the second, advancing both into scoring position via a wild pitch. Only a grounder to short by J.T. Realmuto saved him from digging his teammates into a hole deeper than 2-0.

“He was a little strong in the beginning,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He was wild high, which usually he isn’t. He didn’t have the command of the inside fastball, because he did the same thing he did in the WBC (when he plunked the first batter he faced). It’s not like him to hit batters. Usually he can throw strikes in there.”

Though he wasn’t throwing strikes early, Roark also wasn’t missing the strike zone by much. He just needed to fine-tune a few things to right himself. And that’s just what he did. Throwing more sinkers down in the zone, he induced six groundball outs over his last 4 1/3 innings.

He also enjoyed success throwing pitches in a location typically foreign to him: Up on top of the strike zone. Encouraged by catcher Matt Wieters to come up high several times, Roark recorded three of his six strikeouts on high fastballs.

“I’ve never done that before,” Roark said. “It’s encouraging to have that kind of faith (from) your catcher. It helps you build confidence out there. That’s what I love, and I’m sure what every other pitcher loves.”

Wieters, who caught Roark only once this spring, didn’t seem to realize the right-hander doesn’t typically try to get batters out like that.

“I think he did it well. I think he did it really well,” Wieters said. “Whether that’s something he’s worked on, I think that’s part of his game he can definitely use, especially with his kind of movement with his fastball. If he can make guys respect above the zone as well as on the corners, it’s going to help out even more.”

After needing 46 pitches to get through his first two innings, Roark needed only 51 to get through his next four. That was easily the most he’s thrown in 2017, having failed to top 75 pitches in any of his spring starts.

The closest he had come to that kind of workload so far was an 85-pitch bullpen session Friday afternoon after the Nationals’ exhibition game against the Red Sox was rained out. Needing to build up his arm no matter what, he tried to simulate game conditions by taking breaks after every 15 pitches or so.

“Which is not ideal,” he said with a laugh.

Ideal or not, Roark found a way to make it work.

Which, as anyone who has followed the right-hander’s career can attest, is one of his best qualities.

“Same thing he’s always done,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think last year, that’s one of the reasons why he was in the sixth or seventh inning every single start. Whether he gets off to a good start or a slow start, he somehow figures it out and grinds it out and gives a quality start each time. It’s fun to play behind him. He gets the ball, works, throws strikes. And he’s pretty good at it.”

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