Roark possibly laying claim to a 2014 rotation spot

Is it too soon to start looking toward next season when the Nationals are still in the mix for a playoff spot, sitting 4 1/2 games back of the Reds with 11 to play?

Maybe so. The Nats are red-hot, having now won 21 of their last 27 games, and they’ve, at the very least, made these final couple weeks pretty darn interesting as we see how things shake out in the standings.

It wasn’t too long ago that some were questioning whether the Nats would even break the .500 mark this season. Now they’re sitting at 81 wins with 11 games to go.

Davey Johnson says he thinks if the Nats get to 90 wins, they’ll have a good shot at a postseason spot. Even if the Nats do finish 9-2 to hit that 90-win mark, they’ll need the Reds to finish 3-7 in order to overtake Cincinnati for the final wild card spot, or 4-6 to force a one-game playoff for a right to play in the one-game wild card playoff.

Yeah, it could get complicated.

But while the Nats’ focus is squarely on trying to scratch and claw their way into the postseason this year, the play of Tanner Roark has to have them excited about what the right-hander could potentially offer their rotation in 2014.

If you read any postgame coverage after last night’s 4-0 Nats win, you know all the numbers by now: Roark has started his big league career by going 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA. He’s faced 153 batters over 41 2/3 innings, and remarkably has allowed just two extra-base hits, both of which have been doubles.

Roark has as many big league wins this season as Stephen Strasburg, and has actually won 13 straight decisions dating to his time at Triple-A Syracuse this season.

And don’t think that his work hasn’t been noticed by manager Davey Johnson or pitching coach Steve McCatty, who see Roark as a legitimate candidate for the Nats’ 2014 rotation given the way he’s pitched this year.

“I was comparing him with Taylor Jordan and telling Cat, ‘Taylor Jordan’s got maybe the harder fastball, good changeup, scouts will like him over Tanner,’ ” Johnson said. “But I said, ‘I’ve got to put Tanner ahead of him,’ because of great command. Composure, poise out there is unbelievable. And he competes. ...

“Shoot, when you get ‘em on the major league level and they’re showing command, that goes a long way with me. I’ve had a lot of pitchers that didn’t throw that hard but had great location. He’s very impressive.”

Not only did Johnson say that he views Roark above Jordan, who had a very impressive rookie season in his own right, but he even compared the 26-year-old to a four-time Cy Young award winner who also lacked power pitches and top-notch stuff but excelled because he could hit his spots.

“Greg Maddux didn’t throw that hard, but he located the ball, and that’s why he was a very successful pitcher,” Johnson said. “But (Roark’s) put his stamp out there for one of the spots in this rotation, there’s no doubt in my mind. I mean, that’s not gonna be my decision, but he would get my vote if I’m consulted.”

Win your seventh big league game in a postseason race, hear you’re a legitimate candidate for the 2014 major league rotation and get compared to Greg Maddux. Not a bad night for Roark.

I was curious about what it’s like facing a guy like Roark from a hitter’s perspective, so I asked a couple hitters. It can’t be easy when you’re going up against a guy who is aggressive in the strike zone, throws strike one and locates the ball down in the zone. Roark very rarely leaves a ball up out over the plate, so how does that affect a hitter’s approach when he knows he won’t get many good pitches that he can drive?

“When you get guys chasing down, they know he’s down in the zone but he’s throwing strikes down in the zone, and you just have a tendency to go after those pitches,” Adam LaRoche said. “We face guys like that, and it’s frustrating when they’re on and just living down there, in and out with three pitches. You get a lot of at-bats like you saw (Tuesday night). He was great.

“It’s not smoke and mirrors right now. You get guys coming down to first and talking about how good his stuff is, some really good hitters that are praising him. It says a lot. There’s not a lot of comfortable at-bats against him. It’s quick strikes and, again, he’s locating down, so he’s getting a lot of chases down.”

“The pressure’s on you,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “You either have to try to get him early - he’s obviously a guy who produces a lot of ground balls, and all of a sudden you can be in the sixth or seventh inning and the guy’s got 70 pitches - or you’re taking a lot of strike ones and putting yourself in a hole. So it’s a tough position to be in as a hitter. I can’t say enough about what Tanner did.”

Roark’s impressing everyone who has a chance to watch him right now - coaches, teammates and opponents. He was a 25th-round pick in 2008, was traded for Cristian Guzman and went 6-17 last year at Triple-A.

Now he’s up dominating in the major leagues, and possibly securing a rotation spot for next season.

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