Roark embraces challenge of must-win start for Nationals

CHICAGO - As attention and controversy swirled around Stephen Strasburg and the circumstances that led to the right-hander not taking the mound for today’s must-win game against the Cubs, another member of the Nationals rotation was left ignored: Tanner Roark.

Which was appropriate, given Roark’s career and personality. Here’s a guy who consistently has been overlooked and countless times has stepped up and made people notice him with his performance.

Tanner-Roark-throw-white-sidebar.jpgAnd now the Nationals are hoping Roark has another surprise performance in him this afternoon at Wrigley Field, one that not only will keep their season alive but also remove the sting of the surprise decision to hold Strasburg back for a potential Game 5 on Thursday.

Based on what he’s learned about the 31-year-old over the last two seasons, manager Dusty Baker believes he’s got the right man for the assignment.

“Tanner, you know, is a guy that you would like on your side if you’re in an alley and you’re in a fight,” Baker said. “Because Tanner, he has that warrior mentality. He doesn’t make any excuses or alibis. He just goes out and pitches. And this guy has not had an easy road from the beginning to get here. And so we feel very comfortable with Tanner on the mound, because you know he’s going to fight tooth and nails and do everything he can to win the ballgame for you.”

It’s been an up-and-down year for Roark, who missed a large chunk of spring training while pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, then struggled through the season’s first half with a 6-6 record and 5.27 ERA in 18 games.

The right-hander figured things out in midseason, though, and over a 12-start stretch from mid-July to late-September went 7-4 with a 3.24 ERA. A couple rough outings in the final week of the regular season messed with his stats - he finished 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA - but in the bigger picture he looked very much like the 2014 and 2016 versions of himself over the last several months.

“You know, Tanner didn’t have many innings coming out of spring training, and that kind of got him behind the 8-ball, so to speak,” Baker said. “Because he didn’t have the innings. He was with the WBC, and he didn’t pitch very much. And so things get in your head when you’re used to getting guys out and all of a sudden you’re not getting them out.

“So it’s a new season now for Tanner, brand-new season, and this is what people are going to remember you by. I think they will really be impressed by Tanner’s performance.”

Roark will take the mound later today with plenty of emotion. The native of Wilmington, Ill., will have several family members and friends who made the 64-mile drive north in attendance at Wrigley Field, where he has enjoyed success since reaching the majors.

In five career appearances (four starts) here, Roark is 3-1 with a 3.24 ERA. In the last three seasons, he’s 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA, having surrendered only 12 hits in 17 1/3 innings.

“I know the first year when I came here, it was a little ... it was definitely nerve-wracking,” he said. “There were 300 people from Wilmington out in right-center just chanting my name. It was pretty nerve-wracking to pitch in front of everybody and try to prove to them that I could stay up here and stuff like that. I just think the atmosphere around here is amazing, and to pitch here at Wrigley, and to hear the fans, I know they are going to be crazy. “Just do what I do best, and try to keep them quiet.”

Roark grew up in a mixed household, from a baseball perspective. His father is a White Sox and Cardinals fan. His mother and brother are Cubs fans. As a child, he sided with his mom and brother.

Now the kid from Wilmington finds himself pitching a must-win playoff game at Wrigley Field, entrusted with this start in part because Strasburg isn’t 100 percent healthy.

“It’s pretty surreal to pitch in Wrigley,” Roark said. “Just the history that they have here and everything ... it’s very exciting. I’m anxious to get out there.”

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