After rough 2015, Tanner Roark expects to return to rotation

VIERA, Fla. - Tanner Roark, of all people, knows how things can change in the blink of an eye. He learned last year never to assume anything when it comes to baseball. But make no mistake, the Nationals right-hander fully expects his role to be defined this season. And he expects that role to place (and keep) him in the Nats rotation.

"I expect to start," Roark said Thursday on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported for spring training. "I'm coming in here to prepare as a starter, and I want to be a starter."

roark-pitching-face-on-sidebar-white.jpgRoark had every reason to believe that would be the case in 2015, when, on the heels of a breakthrough season that included 15 wins and a 2.85 ERA, he assumed his spot in the Nationals rotation was secure.

But then came the club's surprise signing of Max Scherzer to a $210 million contract, and suddenly Roark was pushed to the bullpen - with assurances he'd be the first guy called upon if one of the five regular starters was injured.

Roark didn't wind up getting that call as much as he wished. He ultimately started 12 games (compared to 28 relief appearances) and never fully rediscovered the groove that made him such a revelation the previous year. The end result: 4-7 with a 4.38 ERA and plenty of pent-up frustration.

"It was just, I think, a big learning experience," the 29-year-old said. "A mental (thing), which is always a good thing to have. You always can be mentally sharper, because this game can wear on you, and you want to be as mentally sharp as possible. It helps you build up, I guess, your tolerance for some things that you might not like and you have to deal with regardless."

Though he insisted throughout he would be the same pitcher, no matter the role, Roark admits now he tried to be something different when pitching in relief early in 2015. His arm feeling fresh and his mind at ease knowing he wouldn't be needed for more than an inning or two at a time, he tried to dial up his fastball to levels not previously seen.

One day early last season, Roark took a quick peek at the stadium radar gun and saw "96" in bright lights. Increased velocity was too tempting for this former control specialist to pass up.

"I started doing that at the beginning, because my arm felt great and I wasn't pitching every fifth day and throwing 90-100 pitches or whatever," he said. "So coming in and thinking I could blow it by everybody, not pitching for location and letting my two-seamer work. It was really messing me up. So I've learned a lot from that part."

After talking about things with former pitching coach Steve McCatty late in the season, Roark began to dial it back a notch and concentrate more on hitting the corners at 90-92 mph. He proved more effective pitching that way, posting a 2.55 ERA over his final three starts.

With Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister having departed via free agency, Roark is penciled in as either the Nationals' fourth or fifth starter, along with Joe Ross.

Roark fully expects one of those spots to be his. But he also knows not to get too complacent. A few lockers down in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, veteran Bronson Arroyo unpacked his bags Thursday and introduced himself to his new teammates. Now 39 and having not pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery in mid-2014, Arroyo is in camp on a minor league contract.

But Arroyo made it clear he wouldn't have signed with the Nationals unless he had reason to believe there'd be a starting job for him if healthy. He turned down an offer from the Reds that would have guaranteed him a spot in the opening day rotation but chose instead to join Dusty Baker (his former manager in Cincinnati) instead.

"I called him and I was honest with him," Arroyo said of his offseason conversation with Baker. "I said, 'Look, I have an offer from the Reds that's not nearly as good as here. But I know I'll make that club no matter what, because they want me to mentor the young guys. If you think I'm going to come to this locker room here and you think I have no shot at making the club, just let me know.' "

Baker's response, according to Arroyo: "Honestly, I really haven't had my eye on a lot of the young guys here, so I can't tell you specifically what we're going to get. But I can tell you if you come healthy and you pitch like you've always pitched, I think you'll have no trouble making the club."

And if that all plays out, well, maybe Roark's spot isn't as secure as he hopes.

For now, he'll just proceed as planned, building up his arm in preparation to start. And, like everyone else on the Nationals roster, he'll try to put last season's struggles in the rear-view mirror.

"We're all optimistic," Roark said. "Last year is last year. It's flushed away. It's gone. It is what it is. It made us all better. Each year should make you better, and each game should make you better. Everybody's optimistic and ready to go. Anxious, I guess."

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