Roark further establishes his pedigree with another gem

When the Nationals tweaked their rotation prior to this weekend’s series, casual observers noted today’s series finale against the Giants would no longer feature a showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner. This news was, to many, a downer.

Those who have watched the Nationals closely all season, though, know the man who wound up starting today’s game has been every bit as reliable and nearly as successful as his All-Star rotation mate. Tanner Roark, folks, is no slouch.

He is legitimately one of the best pitchers in the National League right now, and perhaps his performance in today’s 1-0 thriller at Nationals Park convinced a few more newcomers of that fact.

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“Unfortunately there are a lot of names ahead of him, and it shouldn’t be that way, in my personal opinion,” catcher Wilson Ramos said, translated from Spanish. “He’s done a very good job, and I hope he can continue working that way. His numbers have been very impressive this season. I know they don’t see him much, or put his name up there, but I know he’s a pitcher that can be above a lot of the other names.”

Here are the facts, in the wake of Roark’s seven scoreless innings of work today...

His ERA is 2.88, 12th-best in the NL. He has thrown 150 innings, fourth-best in the league. He has 12 wins, tied for fourth-best. He has 16 quality starts this season, tied for sixth-best in the majors. And this was the seventh time he has pitched at least seven scoreless innings in a start this year, a feat nobody else in the sport has matched.

If all that wasn’t enough, consider that Roark improved all those numbers in this start, on a day in which he wound up having zero margin for error, with a Cy Young Award candidate and former postseason hero on the mound for the other guys.

“He’s one of the top pitchers in the game,” Roark said of Bumgarner. “Going against that, it gives me an extra boost. I want to go out there and do the same and not get beat.”

For six innings, the two hurlers posted up dueling zeroes. Bumgarner would have won on style points, because he allowed only three batters to reach base to that point while Roark seemingly was pitching his way out of jams all afternoon.

That, however, has become Roark’s calling card. He may not have the blow-you-away stuff that leads to high strikeout totals and two-hit shutouts, but he does have - as Dusty Baker described it last week - “big, uh, you know ... guts.”

Roark proved that several times in this game, pitching his way out of jams in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh innings, each time the Giants putting multiple batters on base and at least one in scoring position.

Some pitchers wilt under the weight of such circumstances, but Roark seems to thrive. Opponents have compiled a .598 OPS against him with runners in scoring position this season. Only Bumgarner and Arizona’s Archie Bradley have been better.

What makes Roark effective in those high-pressure situations?

“Definitely you’ve got to slow things down,” he said. “If you don’t execute a pitch, you can’t just get right back up there and throw without an intention behind it. You’ve got to be confident in what you’re throwing, execute that pitch and not give in.”

Roark, of course, didn’t do it alone today. Ramos’ solo homer off Bumgarner in the bottom of the seventh produced the game’s lone run. Relievers Shawn Kelley and Mark Melancon retired all six batters they faced out of the bullpen, protecting that 1-0 lead.

And Ben Revere made the play in center field that saved Roark’s hide.

Facing a two-out, two-out jam in the top of the seventh after Daniel Murphy let a groundball get under his glove at first base, Roark spun around as Brandon Belt launched his 2-2 pitch deep to center field.

The reaction from everyone in a Nationals uniform mirrored those of everyone in Nationals apparel in the stands.

Roark: “I looked up in the sky, and I was like, ‘Oh, man...’”

Baker: “Stay in the park...”

The ball did stay in the park, barely. Revere turned around and raced for the wall, 404 feet from the plate. He looked over his shoulder, saw the ball coming down, extended his glove and made the catch just before slamming into the fence, experiencing the same sensation he used to when catching a football growing up.

“My dad is a receivers coach, so we’d be in the driveway working on it, and kind of brought it over to the baseball side,” he said. “Getting two feet in bounds. I heard the Redskins were in the audience today scouting, so...”

The crowd of 32,790 roared with approval, and Roark was cheering as loud as anyone in the building.

“Amazing,” the right-hander said. “I mean, straight over the head, at the warning track, up against the wall. Pretty unbelievable catch.”

That proved to be the final pitch Roark threw in this game. Maybe it wasn’t his prettiest one, and maybe it caused a few hearts to flutter. But as has been the case so often this season, it got the job done, and it continued his remarkable run.

The Nationals’ No. 3 starter is now 12-6 with a 2.88 ERA. They know he’s that good. Maybe the rest of baseball is figuring it out, as well.

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