There was no bigger feel-good story on the Nationals’ 2014 roster than Tanner Roark, a 25th-round draft pick given a rare opportunity to start for a division champion who then made the most of it, endearing himself to teammates and fans alike.
Very little about Roark’s 2015 season has felt good. Not his performance as a starter. Not his performance as a reliever. Not his shuffling back and forth between those roles.
Another chapter was added to the story Thursday night, when Roark was roughed up for six runs in five innings during the Nationals’ 6-4 loss to the Marlins. It was his ninth start of the season, the fifth time he’s been unable to reach the sixth inning, the third time he has allowed five or more earned runs.
And it provided another opportunity for Roark to blame his ragged season on his ever-changing role, one that has rarely allowed him to establish a regular routine. The right-hander, though, refuses to do that.
“It’s been a crazy year; I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “But you can’t put blame on anybody but myself. It’s my job, whenever my name is called, to go out there and get outs. You can’t make excuses. … I’m not one for making excuses and I never will. Ultimately, it’s me out there on the mound, and I have control of the game.”
There is a certain nobility in Roark’s response, in refusing to attribute his struggles to the situation in which he was placed. Make no mistake, though: He hasn’t been dealt a great hand, forced to make constant adjustments along the way, his fate dependent upon the status of others.
All this after a breakthrough season in which Roark won 15 games while posting a 2.85 ERA, numbers that would normally leave him a lock to make the following year’s rotation. But when the Nationals surprised everyone by signing Max Scherzer to a $210 million mega-deal, Roark became the odd man out.
He opened the season in the bullpen as a long-relief option for manager Matt Williams. But when the back end of the Nationals’ pen suffered from injuries and inexperience, Roark found himself for awhile pitching in high-leverage, 1-inning stints.
All along, the Nationals suggested he would be the first man called upon if one of their starters went down. But then Joe Ross emerged as one of the best rookie starters in baseball, and so Roark again was pushed out to the margins of the staff … until Ross reached his innings limit for the season, resulting in Roark’s brief demotion to the minors to build his arm back up before rejoining the big-league rotation for the final stretch.
It hasn’t gone particularly well. Roark has now made three starts since replacing Ross, and he hasn’t yet made it past the fifth inning. Overall, he owns a 5.66 ERA in nine games as a starter this year.
“He’s been used in a bunch of different ways this year, and that’s not easy,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “But I don’t think he’ll be the one making an excuse about it, so I’m not going to make an excuse for him. He wants to compete, and he did that tonight. Obviously he didn’t get the results he wanted, but he gave us a chance.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Roark circa 2014 and Roark circa 2015 has been his penchant for serving up home runs. He allowed only 16 in 198 2/3 innings last season. He has now allowed 14 in only 93 1/3 innings this season.
Roark attributes that discrepancy to pitches left up in the zone.
“Most of the time, balls that are up at the waist … these are big-league hitters, they know how to hit these balls,” he said. “They go far.”
There are three more turns through the rotation before the season ends. For now, Roark is lined up to make all of those starts. If the Nationals are eliminated before then, though, it’s possible Williams could decide to give A.J. Cole or Taylor Jordan an opportunity to step in.
Regardless, Roark figures to have the opportunity to make the Nationals’ rotation in 2016, with two spots likely opening following the expected departures of free agents Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.
Until then, he’ll try to make the most of these final opportunities, grateful at least to know he’ll be starting every fifth day at the end of a season that featured very little routine.
“For me, since bouncing back and forth, spot-starting here and there, you get into a rhythm,” he said. “You have a couple starts, and you learn from the previous start. You work your butt off to the next start, and then you just build off each start, keep getting higher and higher and higher. Even though that’s the best I felt tonight, the results weren’t what I’d like. But you can build off that.”