The Nationals did not have a good start again Tuesday night. This time, it was an old friend who made them uncomfortable.
In his first start at Nationals Park since Sept. 5, 2018, right-hander Tanner Roark beat his former team as the Blue Jays dropped the Nats 5-1, sweeping the two-game series.
Roark spent six seasons with the Nats from 2013-2018, and was a member of three National East championship clubs. His three best seasons in the majors, going a combined 44-31, coincided with division-winning seasons for the Nats in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“It was exciting just to be back out there in general just to pitch against not my own teammates,” Roark said on video call about his return to South Capitol Street. “It’s a big change in things, which is good. It felt really good to just go out there and throw strikes and perform well. We got the bats behind me.”
Last season, he made 21 starts for the Reds and 10 for A’s. One of those starts was against the Nats in Cincinnati, but Tuesday night marked his return to D.C. as a starter for the opposing team. The Nats beat him 5-2 back in early June last season, but this time, Roark got the better of his old buddies.
He knew coming in that a lot of his former teammates would be ready for him, so he had to have a strategy to cross them up.
“Absolutely,” Roark said of the cat-and-mouse game. “Spending five years in the NL East, and I’ve played with Asdrúbal Cabrera and I’ve pitched against him. Now pitch against him again. (Nats hitting coach) Kevin Long does a good job with scouting reports and they know me very well. Main thing is to execute your pitches and don’t overthink it.”
The right-hander was steady and consistent, allowing one run on three hits over five innings for his first win of the season. He struck five and walked none on 73 pitches, 47 for strikes.
Roark used his fastball, slider, changeup - and, most importantly, his curveball - to baffle the Nats. The curveball was especially good, a pitch he said he has recently regained confidence in throwing.
“I felt like I found my curveball in my bullpen couple days ago and it’s been sharp ever since,” Roark said. “It felt really, really good tonight. Just tunneling that off my fastball, keeping them guessing the whole time.”
He had retired five Nats before Starlin Castro singled with two outs in the second. With two outs in the third, the Nats rallied behind a Trea Turner double and an RBI single from Adam Eaton. But Roark then retired seven batters in a row to get through five.
“These guys know a lot about me, so just keeping them off balance and keeping them guessing what I’m trying to throw,” he said.
The key to turning the tables after the Nats found an opening? Roark said he looked to try to back the Nats off the plate.
“Throwing inside, letting them know I’m still out there,” Roark said. “Felt like when Turner hit that double down the right field line and then that base hit through the four-hole from Eaton, I felt like after that inning they were getting too comfortable. So we had to switch things up and come in hard and let them know I’m still out there.”
After pitching for two teams last season and getting to decide where to go this year, Roark said he liked the combination of youthful, up-and-coming stars and quality catchers that the Blue Jays offered.
“That’s one reason I decided to sign here was the catching core, and the group of young kids that were coming up that are going to be a staple in all of Major League Baseball,” Roark said. “Now being able to play with them and talk with them, the mental side of the game or anything like that. That’s what I am here for: to try to give them knowledge, give them help.”
Roark has certainly had his ups and downs in his career, but he said the key to his resiliency all these years has been hard work. He said he wasn’t blessed with a rocket arm, but he was never going to let someone outwork him. That has led to his success - and is what drew the Blue Jays to him, too.
“I’ve always been wanting to be the guy that (was) very durable,” Roark said. “I’m going to go out there every five days and make my start. I’m going to give you everything I’ve got. I try to talk to the young guys. You are not going to feel 100 percent every single day. So you got to go out there and you got to fight through some stuff. Sometimes you find out what you are made of.”