On Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park a beardless man wearing a No. 57 Tanner Roark jersey took the mound and proceeded to carve up the Minnesota Twins lineup like a sockeye salmon, striking out 15 batters with just two hits allowed in seven scoreless innings.
It was a far cry from the last time we saw that No. 57 uniform in a five-run (4 ER) mishap on April 18 at the Marlins that included seven hits and only two strikeouts in six innings of work. It also didn't correspond with the pitcher who had struck out just nine total batters through his first three outings of 2016.
Wait, that was the same guy?
In the Nats' 2-0 win over the Twins on Saturday, it wasn't just Roark's facial hair that was different. The right-hander somehow made striking out 15 batters look easy despite boasting just one double-digit strikeout performance in any of his previous 88 career MLB appearances, 51 of them starts. That previous career-high for strikeouts in a game was 11, and Roark bested that on Saturday through just 4 2/3 innings pitched.
Suddenly, Roark was a strikeout pitcher, grooving his two-seam fastball sharply to both sides of the plate. His changeup was particularly effective, as well. Heck, all of his pitches were working.
“I don’t think I ever have," Roark said when asked if he had been as sharp before. "I was throwing four pitches to lefties and righties. Keeping them guessing, keeping them uncomfortable up at the plate, trying to get ahead with strike one... I really got to go after it and be aggressive, keep going at the hitters.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux went into more detail about the two-seamer.
"It's a huge pitch. I mean, it's a bonafide out pitch. You can tell the guy it's coming and it's hard to hang in there. The guys who have that pitch, and Tanner is one of them, you can get a lot of outs. You can get a lot of outs with that pitch. It comes down to execution. You execute it and you see the results, and all of a sudden you grow confident with it and you can't wait to throw it again," he said.
Roark had 14 strikeouts through six innings on 108 pitches and, to the surprise of many, was allowed to go back out for another frame. He threw 13 more pitches to finish the day with 121 through seven. His previous career-high was 112.
Manager Dusty Baker said the decision was made by him and Maddux and after they consulted catcher Wilson Ramos.
"Usually the catcher has a pretty good idea if he still has his stuff. We’ll try not to take him that many pitches too many more times but today was a special day for him," Baker said.
Baker, Maddux and Ramos all weighed in before the call was made. Roark, though, did not.
“Mike’s always said you’re out of the game when we tell you you’re out of the game," Roark explained. "He’s big about don’t ever let your guard down because you never know what happens. If someone gets hurt in the bullpen or what not, you always got to be ready and never let your guard down. I was never told anything. So I never let my guard down. I went in my corner and just stayed silent and stayed focused.”
Maddux broke down why he thought Roark had a little more left in the tank.
"He hadn't labored all day," he said. "He was in the windup the whole time. He was never really stressed with that leadoff double where 'hey, my back is to the wall.' He was in the driver's seat and pitched out of the windup a whole lot today. You look at the stress of the pitches, he was in a good spot. He was able to keep going."
Roark looked like a different pitcher and, as mentioned above, a different guy after shaving off what was a thick beard. The right-hander was asked if his 15-strikeout performance would cause him to shave before his next start in interest of superstition.
“I don’t know. We’ll see where it goes," he said.