Sometimes a pitcher spends hours poring over videos, working on mechanics in the bullpen, analyzing opposing hitters, using every technological method available to him to fix a problem.
And sometimes he just takes advice from Crash Davis.
Ask Tanner Roark the biggest difference for him during tonight’s 5-1 victory over the Mariners, how he was able to succeed in two-strike counts after struggling in those situations over the last month, and you get an answer straight from “Bull Durham.”
“I think I was gripping the ball too tight,” Roark said. “You’ve got to treat it like an egg. Can’t break the egg. That’s what I was telling myself.”
He was no Nuke LaLoosh tonight, but Roark did bear a striking resemblance to the version of himself that dominated opposing lineups last season. He got ahead of hitters, just as he has all year, and then he finally showed an ability to put them away.
Of the 21 outs Roark recorded, eight came via strikeout (matching his season high). He allowed only one hit with two strikes. Of the 25 two-strike pitches he threw, 13 resulted in outs.
How significant was that? Well, according to research by MLB.com’s Andrew Simon, Roark entered the day having turned only 26 percent of his two-strike pitches into outs, the worst rate among all qualified major leaguers. Tonight, he turned 52 percent of two-strike pitches into outs.
“He threw another competitive pitch with two strikes when he got there,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “He didn’t get to where it was 1-2, 2-2, 3-2. He made them put a ball in play 0-2 or 1-2.”
However it was that Roark did it, it made a significant difference. Instead of seeing his pitch count rise from a flurry of foul balls and prolonged innings, he managed to complete seven innings on a mere 102 pitches (only 59 of those coming over his final five frames).
His two-seam fastball had better run on it, producing many of his strikeouts. And he used that pitch exceptionally well to get himself back into the dugout: He struck out the final batter he faced in all but one of his innings.
“You’ve got to make them hit your pitch,” he said. “And if it’s 1-2, you’ve still got two pitches to work with. That’s the biggest thing.”
This was the kind of outing we’ve come to expect from Roark over the years. He went seven innings allowing one run or fewer 13 times last season, most in the majors. This was the first time he’s done it this season, only the second time he’s even completed seven innings in 10 starts.
Roark was especially frustrated with himself after his last outing - he was roughed up for seven runs in five innings in Pittsburgh - and the following day in Atlanta, he and Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux had a long chat.
“We talked for a good while in the outfield during BP and fixed some things,” the pitcher said. “I feel confident. I feel good.”
Roark certainly looked the part tonight. And for that, Maddux deserves some credit.
Then again, maybe the real hero here was Crash Davis. Hey, the guy did know how to help a young pitcher succeed.
(No word if Roark tried breathing through his eyelids, though.)