MILWAUKEE - Yes, they still need to win games over the season’s final month so they can wrap up their fourth division title in six years. But at this point, given their comfortable standing, the Nationals can afford to look not just at each individual game, but at the larger picture, especially for those players who are trying to best position themselves to be in peak form come October.
In that regard, few members of the roster are positioning themselves better right than Tanner Roark.
Roark’s full season numbers - an 11-9 record, 4.48 ERA, 1.32 WHIP - still don’t look all that great. But focus instead on how he has improved over the course of the season, and you realize he has rediscovered the peak form he displayed in 2016.
With seven innings of one-run, 10-strikeout ball Friday night in a 1-0 loss to the Brewers, Roark put together perhaps his best all-around pitching performance of the season. And this was merely a continuation of a six-week resurgence by the right-hander.
In 17 starts before the All-Star break, Roark sported a 5.27 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and .278 opponents’ batting average. In nine starts since, he owns a 3.05 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and .197 opponents’ batting average. (Those last two numbers each rank fifth in the National League.)
“I feel good out there,” he said. “Slowing the game down is a big part, and I feel like I’ve been able to do that more the second half this year. When you get in big jams and just go out there, make your pitches and whatever else happens behind you or whatever they do with that pitch, that’s what they do with that pitch.”
Thing is, opponents aren’t doing much with those pitches. In many cases, they aren’t even making contact.
Roark’s biggest bugaboo earlier this season was an inability to put away hitters once he got two strikes on them. He’s never been a big strikeout guy, relying instead of inducing weak contact, but he has transformed himself this summer. After striking out only 7.2 batters per nine innings in the first half of the season, Roark is striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings in the second half. That’s good enough to rank eighth in the NL.
Has that been the result of better stuff or just better confidence in his stuff?
“I would say confidence, and throwing any pitch to anybody in any count and trusting that it’s going to be there and that it’s going to be executed well,” he said. “And I have all the conviction on it. That’s the biggest thing. You have to make everything look like it’s a fastball out of your hand, and use the same arm speed and everything. So it’s been coming around a lot the second half.”
Roark isn’t about to thrust himself to the top of the Nationals postseason rotation, leapfrogging Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. But if there were any doubts about his ability to serve as a reliable fourth starter come October, he is putting those to rest.
“He’s back to form,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We would love to score more runs for him, but he was throwing the ball well. He was the Tanner we know now. If he keeps throwing the ball like that, he’s going to keep winning a lot of ballgames down the stretch.”