It doesn’t take long to figure out whether Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer have good stuff on any given night they take the mound. One inning of work often provides enough evidence to suggest either right-hander is primed for a big game.
With Tanner Roark, the signs are less acute. Roark might retire the side in the top of the first, as he did tonight in the Nationals’ 6-0 victory over the Pirates. And he might even do it on eight pitches, as he did tonight. But unlike his counterparts in the Nats rotation, who make their living blowing away hitters with dominant stuff, you typically don’t appreciate Roark in full until he departs the mound for good at the end of the night and then look up at the scoreboard and marvel at the results.
“He’ll just get you out,” manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s the secret to pitching: Get ‘em out.”
And few National League pitchers are getting them out as consistently and efficiently as Roark is these days. He has gone at least seven innings in each of his last five starts and 12 of his 19 starts this season. His ERA is down to 2.82, three notches better than it was during his breakthrough 2014 season. And nobody in baseball induces more soft contact, according to FanGraphs, than Roark.
Is it any wonder teammates love playing behind him so much?
“He gives you the same thing every time he goes out and starts,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “You know he’s going to have a great tempo. He’s going to go after the hitters. He’s going to let our defense work. He came out on top today.”
Roark put it all together during his latest performance, shutting out the Pirates over eight sterling innings. He took the mound for the ninth, the sellout crowd of 38,861 roaring with approval at the possibility of his second career complete game, and though he was pulled after letting the first two batters reach base, it left no blemish on his start.
“I pride myself on that, going as long as I can and as hard as I can,” he said. “That’s what starting pitchers are supposed to do. I try to do that and not try to nibble or try to trick hitters. Just go after them, be aggressive and get strike one.”
The Nationals rotation as a whole has done that over the last week-plus. During their current five-game winning streak, starters have allowed a total of five earned runs on 17 hits over 35 2/3 innings.
Scherzer and Strasburg, of course, garner most of the attention. But Roark deserves to stand alongside them. He ranks 11th in the NL in ERA, ninth in wins, fourth in innings pitched.
“He’s a bulldog,” said second baseman Stephen Drew, who hadn’t ever seen Roark pitch prior to this season. “He goes out there and throws the ball, and he doesn’t wait around. He’s got a game plan and sticks with it. I haven’t known him that much. I heard about him but hadn’t seen him in person. To be able to play behind him, it’s fun. Because he’s quick. He knows what he wants to do. And he’s been able to hit his spots.”
It feels like ages ago, but it was only one year ago when Roark, fresh off his 15-10, 2.85 ERA breakthrough, was relegated to the bullpen after the Nationals signed Scherzer to a $210 million contract. Nowadays, he’s an institution in the club’s rotation, worthy of starting the second game out of the All-Star break, as reliable as any pitcher who takes the mound for this first-place team.
“He’s hungry,” Baker said. “He’s like a warrior. He doesn’t run from anybody. He’s like the epitome of a competitor. He wanted this spot and he got it, and he doesn’t plan on giving it up. ... If you wanna tackle this guy, you better bring a lunch, dinner and some snacks.”