Roark’s latest ragged start leaves Nationals in a lurch

ST. LOUIS - The Nationals have spent the better part of the last three months trying to figure out what’s wrong with Tanner Roark. How has one of the majors’ most consistent starters since he debuted nearly four years ago has fallen apart in the first half of this season?

roark-pitching-white-sidebar.jpgAnd after yet another ragged outing in which the right-hander lasted only three innings and set the course for the Nationals’ 8-1 loss to the Cardinals, they found themselves right back where they started.

What’s the problem with Roark? Is it mechanics? Is it execution? Is it the fact he missed much of spring training to pitch in the World Baseball Classic?

Or, with the answer still not clear, is there any chance he’s not 100 percent healthy?

“Well, I ask him that and (pitching coach Mike Maddux) asked him that,” manager Dusty Baker said. “His velocity is still good. It’s just his command is off. Like I said, he hasn’t been right in a while, so we’ll try to find out what the problem is and get to the bottom of it.”

It’s the greatest mystery of the Nationals season to date, and nobody seems to be any closer to solving it now than weeks ago or months ago.

Roark says he feels fine, and his radar gun readings would suggest he’s telling the truth. But facts are facts, and right now the fact is that Roark owns a 5.27 ERA in 17 starts, a number that keeps climbing with each aggravating appearance on the mound.

“I’m fine,” the pitcher said. “Just mechanically, I feel fine, everything feels good. But just like I said, falling behind guys is never, ever good. Five walks, giving free passes.”

Roark indeed walked five batters tonight, established a new career high. That he did it in the span of only 12 total batters faced spoke even more of his lack of precision in this game.

In his defense, Roark was not helped much by plate umpire Mark Carlson, who called a tight strike zone. But the righty would not use that as an excuse, pointing out he hadn’t earned the right to get borderline pitches called in his favor.

“When you’re missing big-time by a lot ... I mean umpire sees that,” he said. “So you’re never going to get the close strikes whenever you think it’s a strike and it might be borderline. Could go one way, could go the other way. But most of the time, it goes against you because you’re not throwing strikes. The zone was smaller just because you’re not pumping anything in there.”

Last month, Roark had seemed to solve his problems and strung together three solid starts in a row. But he has regressed dramatically since then; over his last four starts, he has allowed 22 runs and 28 hits in only 16 2/3 innings, needing a whopping 372 pitches to do that.

A few starts ago, Roark was downright angry at himself for the situation. Now, he seems more mystified than anything.

“He’s a proud guy, so he doesn’t really get frustrated,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “I talked to him a couple minutes ago. He was telling me: ‘I don’t know. I’ve been trying to do the same, and it’s not working right now. I’ve got to keep working.’”

For now, the Nationals will keep letting Roark try to work his way through this. There’s no top prospect knocking on the door to take his rotation spot (not with Erick Fedde converting to a relief role at Triple-A Syracuse).

It’s Roark’s job. And it’s up to him to figure out how to put a halt to this downward spiral and salvage what has become a lost season for a guy who had been as reliably effective as anyone in the sport.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Baker said. “We’ve just got to find out what’s wrong, because he’s a lot better than this. And we’ll find it. I’m sure it’s very frustrating for him. And it’s frustrating for us.”

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