Roark dazzles in surprise relief appearance to close first half

NEW YORK - Tanner Roark didn’t know what to expect when he headed down to the bullpen early yesterday afternoon at Citi Field, other than to make sure he was ready in case he was needed to pitch the Nationals’ first-half finale against the Mets.

Only four days after throwing 99 pitches in a win over the Brewers, Roark knew he wouldn’t be starting another game until next weekend at the earliest. So he made himself available to pitch in relief for this one, not sure if or when or how he would be used.

“Just got to be ready for anything, as I learned last year in the bullpen,” he said. “Anything can happen. When you least think your name is going to be called, it gets called. And when you think it’s going to be called, it doesn’t. So you’ve got to be ready at all times mentally and make sure you’re hot whenever you get that call.”

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Roark wound up getting the call with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. Gio Gonzalez’s pitch count was up to 108, and with the Nationals clinging to a 3-2 lead, manager Dusty Baker summoned Roark to face Travis d’Arnaud.

Roark promptly got d’Arnaud to ground out to short. Little did he realize at the time his appearance was just beginning.

Baker stuck with Roark through both the seventh and eighth innings. And Roark responded by retiring all seven batters he faced on a total of 25 pitches, bridging the gap between Gonzalez and closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.

“He was in the bullpen last year, so it wasn’t like he didn’t know what to do,” Baker said. “That probably helped him. ... We don’t plan on doing that too much more. But if we have to do it, we do what we have to do.”

Roark spent most of last season pitching out of the Nationals bullpen, not entirely comfortable with the role one year after he went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA as a starter on a division winner. His biggest challenge as a reliever: Learning not to try to overpower hitters during his brief outings, sticking with the same approach that has allowed him to be a successful starter.

The right-hander kept that mindset yesterday, and it paid off. He struck out two of the seven batters he faced, but he mostly went after the Mets lineup with his usual variety of pitches, seeking weak contact instead of swings-and-misses.

“I was just trying to think of it as a start, like I was in the seventh or eighth inning going out to start,” he said. “Because I had that problem last year where I was trying to blow the ball by everybody. My arm felt great and my body felt great, but overall I wasn’t hitting my locations as I would like. The result was them getting hits and scoring runs. So I tried to refocus and let my two-seamer work and let my stuff do its job and not try to overthink it.”

Roark earned the praise of his manager along the way.

“Tanner’s a horse,” Baker said. “He was throwing as if he was starting. He had good command. You want to win this last game. You want to feel good about yourself over the break.”

Roark helped make that possible, churning out 2 1/3 key innings in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory. He’ll return to his usual spot in the rotation after the All-Star break, but he’ll remember this surprise appearance and know he better be ready should the opportunity arise again.

“Just like (pitching coach Mike) Maddux always said from the beginning of spring training: Never let your guard down,” Roark said. “Same thing as when I’m starting. I was in the game until they come up and tell me I’m out of the game.”

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