ATLANTA — It was a loss, one of seven he has suffered this season, one of 77 the Nationals collectively have endured in 2015. So Tanner Roark couldn’t exactly be all smiles in the clubhouse at Turner Field after Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Braves.
Roark, though, did his share of grinning, and deservedly so. Because his performance — 6 2/3 innings of 2-run, 5-hit ball — was a positive development, a much-needed one for the right-hander in his penultimate appearance of a difficult season.
“Definitely it feels very good,” he said. “Just building my confidence up, knowing I can go deep into games and get into the 100s in pitch count and still perform.”
That’s not something Roark had done in awhile. In four previous starts since rejoining the Nationals’ rotation, he had yet to reach the sixth inning and hadn’t thrown more than 82 pitches. This time, he reached the seventh and totaled 104 pitches.
And he was effective throughout the entire appearance, making only two mistakes along the way: a 1-1 curveball to A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the fourth, then a 3-2 fastball to Pierzynski in the bottom of the seventh. The veteran catcher launched both over the fence, accounting for all of Atlanta’s runs on the night.
Roark and the Nationals, though, could take far more positives out of this start than negatives. Perhaps most importantly, he reminded himself he actually can be more effective when he purposely eases up on the gas pedal and doesn’t try to throw as hard as he can.
Throughout the season, much of which he has spent in the bullpen making shorter appearances, Roark has surprised everyone by dialing up his velocity, consistently hitting 95 mph with his fastball for the first time in his career. He has come to realize, though, that he’s not an overpowering pitcher, that he’s better off not throwing as hard but getting more movement and locating better down in the zone.
“Yeah, it showed tonight,” he said. “There were a couple pitches I let loose. But for the most part, I was just trying to hit my spot and stay down in the zone.
“Coming out of the bullpen for an inning or whatever, you feel great … for the most part. And you have a little extra 1-2 mph to your fastball. Of course you see that and it kind of tricks you into thinking, ‘Man, I could blow everything by them.’ But then you lose your location. Letting the ball move, using the sinker more and command down in the zone.”
It was that philosophy — and execution — that allowed Roark to win 15 games and post a 2.85 ERA as a full-time starter last season. Shuttling back and forth between roles this year, he perhaps lost his way, trying to be something he was not.
Perhaps this extended stint back in the rotation, where he wanted to be all along, could help Roark rediscover himself and head into the offseason feeling much better about his place within the organization.
“That’s his comfort zone, certainly,” manager Matt Williams said. “The way we stacked coming out of spring training, he was unfortunately in the bullpen. That’s a good thing for our team as a whole. But it doesn’t allow him to feel that rhythm as much. When he gets a chance to start, he feels it more.”
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