As ERA balloons to 5.15, Roark tries to find the positives

This is what it has come to for Tanner Roark, who at this stage of a frustrating season has to try to find the positives, even in a start in which he gave up five runs in the top of the first and dug his team into an insurmountable hole.

“I’ll build off this one and keep chugging along,” the right-hander said.

roark-pitching-white-sidebar.jpgFor Roark, this was better than previous outings. That five-run first, awful results notwithstanding, featured a flurry of well-placed, soft-contact ground balls that eluded Nationals infielders. And after that, he was able not only to prevent any more damage by the Reds lineup but also to pitch efficiently enough to give his team six innings and keep Dusty Baker from having to burn up his entire bullpen three days into a 17-game stretch that precedes the All-Star break.

“That was very important for us,” Baker said following his team’s 6-2 loss. “Because we have a tough series coming up here with the Cubs. We have like 14 more on (this stretch). We could get upside-down if I had to take him out in the second inning. I’d have my bullpen upside-down for a couple days, especially if the starter doesn’t go very far the next two days. It was real big of him to gut it out and save the bullpen.”

These kinds of sentiments by and about Roark might not have been uttered last year or most other times in his career prior to this point. Few major league starters could more reliably have been counted on to provide a quality start every time they toed the rubber.

These are different times for Roark, though. He has been searching for answers all season. And every time it seems like he has it figured out, he regresses back into a place he’s never been.

This was Roark’s third consecutive start in which he was charged with at least six earned runs. Only once before in Nationals history had a starting pitcher done that: Jason Marquis, who was roughed up in three consecutive starts in April 2010 and wound up spending the next four months on the disabled list following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

With this season nearly halfway complete, Roark finds himself in unusual company. From the day he debuted in 2013 through the end of 2016, he ranked ninth among all major league starters with a 3.01 ERA (only percentage points behind Max Scherzer). This year, Roark’s 5.15 ERA ranks 63rd out of 76 qualifying big league starters.

The primary issue has been an inability to put away hitters when he has the chance. Roark has been done in by two-strike damage more than anything, and today’s game was no different.

Six of the Reds’ nine hits - and both of their walks - against Roark came with two strikes, several after he already had gotten ahead in the count 0-2.

“When you don’t have your pinpoint control - his comeback fastball, especially, against lefties on the inside - the slider away, it’s frustrating for him and frustrating for us,” Baker said. “More for him, because of how close he is to getting his stuff together, especially when you have two strikes. The whole league with two strikes ... nobody is better with two strikes. They’re finding some holes.”

Roark has been through the wringer on this and other confounding subject matters, trying to figure out if there’s something different he should be doing to have more success in those situations.

He keeps coming back to the same answer.

“You just try not to strike them out,” he said. “Just make your pitch. Locate it well. And hope you have luck on your side.”

This is what it has come to for Roark. A little luck might be his best hope of resurrecting a wayward season.

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