This is, after all, a guy who was drafted in the 25th round by the Rangers who went 6-17 with a 4.39 ERA for the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate in 2012. That he turned himself into one of the better starting pitchers in the National League is in itself a remarkable achievement.
So while Roark’s ragged start to the 2017 season - he now sports a 4.73 ERA after allowing seven runs in today’s 10-4 loss to the Pirates - is certainly cause for concern, he knows he has overcome plenty in his professional career. This is merely his latest challenge.
“The game is testing me right now,” he said. “I’ve got to fight back and not give in and continue to work hard and keep doing my thing.”
Roark hasn’t been doing his thing much this year. What qualities have defined him since he joined the Nationals midway through the 2013 campaign? An ability to pound the strike zone, get quick outs and provide plenty of innings.
He’s not doing any of that right now. Roark has completed seven innings only once in nine starts (he ranked third in the league in that department in 2016). He is walking 3.7 batters per nine innings (his career rate had been 2.3 walks per nine innings). And he is throwing a hefty 18.7 pitches per inning (his career rate had been 15.5 pitches per inning).
“I just feel like the walks were the main thing,” he said. “Eliminate the walks, and you’ll be out there longer. That’s the main thing.”
Roark issued four free passes in five innings this afternoon, including a trio in the bottom of the third. One of those came to John Jaso with the bases loaded, after he was ahead in the count 1-2.
“He got ahead in some counts today, and then would get back to 2-2, 3-2,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “I think from playing against Tanner that much, you know that once he gets ahead, he’s going to keep pounding strikes. And we’ve just thrown a few pitches that are non-competitive, to where it hasn’t really made guys get aggressive on him. Because when hitters get aggressive on him, that’s when you can take the ball off the plate and move the ball and get some early outs. He’s just a little bit off right now, but he’ll figure it out.”
On most days, Dusty Baker wouldn’t have pushed Roark as far as he did today. But with his bullpen taxed (not to mention ineffective) the veteran manager felt he had no choice but to send his starter back to the mound for the bottom of the sixth, with his pitch count already at 106 in a 5-4 ballgame.
“If his spot had come up to hit - he was two spots away - we wouldn’t have put him back out there,” Bake said. “But you’re trying to squeeze everything out of your starters, because ... our bullpen was kind of stretched out.”
Roark wound up allowing a leadoff single, then his fourth and final walk of the game, and that was that. He was pulled with his pitch count at 114, and when Blake Treinen (pitching for the third straight day) served up a two-run double, Roark found himself on the hook for a season-high seven runs in five innings.
Afterward, he said he plans to examine some video, trying to detect if there are any mechanical flaws that could help him throw more strikes and get more of his trademark movement on his two-seam fastballs.
“But the biggest thing is not getting in your own head,” he said. “Once you do that, it’s a downhill slope. Like I said, I’m going to keep having confidence in myself, confidence in my teammates, go out there and go as long as I can and as hard as I can.”
Roark, of course, has done this before. He has needed to prove himself more than once in his career. But he also has had considerable success at the big league level.
That’s what he’s trying to remind himself as he attempts to re-prove himself once again.
“I know the stuff’s there,” he said. “It’s all about limiting ... trying to get four pitches or less to every hitter. Maybe three pitches or less. Just attack, attack, attack. Keep them uncomfortable. That’s my game. At times, I feel like I get a little too ... I try to pinpoint the ball instead of just throwing it. That’s probably contributing to the walks a little bit.
“I’m just gonna keep chucking. That’s all you can do. Keep working hard and keep my confidence level up.”