Daniel Shiferaw

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Tanner Roark calls first-career playoff start 'a dream come true'

Tanner Roark calls first-career playoff start 'a dream come true'

With the Nationals already down 1-0 in their best-of-five series against the Dodgers, they’ll be leaning on their rotation’s secret weapon to help them draw even before heading to L.A.

Indeed, for as impressive as Tanner Roark’s 2016 has been, it has seemingly flown under the radar around the baseball world. He finished the regular season 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA over 210 innings of work, and yet is rarely mentioned when discussing the NL’s top arms.

However, Game 2 of the division series will give him a chance to show the nation what the Nats have already known about him in his four-year big-league career.

“It's definitely a dream come true,” Roark said before NLDS Game 1. “To get your first start in the post-season. But you've got to go out there and be confident in everything that I do, and, you know, be aggressive and keep doing what I did all during the season. Not change anything and just be myself.”

The 29-year-old right hander doesn’t have to be modest when stacking his numbers side-by-side with the NL’s best. Roark has induced the third-most double plays in baseball, and has the most starts of any starter this season of seven or more shutout innings. He may not have the electric fastball or the wipeout slider, but sinker ball has been tough for opposing hitters to square up.

“This guy, he's a horse,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He's a warrior. We feel very comfortable with him on the mound. We know that he's going to fight you every turn and every inning of the game.”

“Oh, yeah, I definitely feel Tanner has been underrated the majority of his career,” added third baseman Anthony Rendon. “He's a bulldog. I love that guy.”

It’s been a somewhat long and winding road for Roark to wind up as one of the Nats’ three best starters. Originally a player to be named later when coming over from the Minnesota Twins in 2010, Roark made his MLB-debut in 2013 as a reliever. A season later, he joined the rotation and broke out, winning 15 games and sporting a 2.85 ERA. But after the Nats signed Max Scherzer in 2015, Roark returned to the bullpen in somewhat of a nebulous role, which came with mixed results.

But the Nats was in need of a starter with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann departing last offseason, giving Roark a shot to prove that 2014 wasn’t a fluke.

“I asked him [in spring training] ‘Are you a starter or a reliever, which one would you rather do?’ And he told me he wanted to start,” Baker said. “So I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to give you every opportunity to start.’”

The decision paid off, and Roark doesn’t appear to be relinquishing his spot in the rotation again anytime soon. Now it’s up to him to come through for the Nats when they need him most.

“If you're not nervous, you're not human, and you don't care, I feel like,” Roark said. “So for me, being nervous is a good thing. And I'm not starting till tomorrow, so just got to go out there and do my thing. Just be confident and trust my stuff.”

[MORE: MLB COMMISSIONER ROBERT MANFRED EXPLAINS POSTPONEMENT OF NATS-DODGERS]

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Dusty Baker on Espinosa's Game 1 struggles: 'Who else do I have?'

Dusty Baker on Espinosa's Game 1 struggles: 'Who else do I have?'

Throughout Danny Espinosa’s rollercoaster 2016 season, Dusty Baker has staunchly stood by his shortstop’s side at every turn. That loyalty has been rewarded in spurts, most notably by Espinosa's nine home run, 21 RBI June.

But the 29-year-old's second half swoon, one in which he slashed .172/.272/.280, carried over into Game 1 of the NL Division Series. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the switch-hitting Espinosa was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, stranding six base runners.

So is Baker willing to consider other options?

“Well, who else do I have? That’s my answer,” the manager said Saturday.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Baker has stuck with Espinosa all season, primarily because of his defense and occasional pop. After all, he’s tied for fourth among major league shortstops with 24 home runs. That said, his propensity to strikeout — he tied for fourth in the majors with 174 whiffs  — has hurt the Nats offense, and did so again in Game 1.

“I mean, you can give me somebody better, then I can play somebody instead of him," Baker continued. "You know, certain times you have certain people on your team and that’s what you’ve got. My job is to hopefully get the most out of them and make them better.”

Espinosa is starting again in Game 2 against Dodgers lefty Rich Hill. If he struggles again, it’s fair to wonder if Baker would consider starting utility infielder Stephen Drew for Game 3. Los Angeles will be going with right hander Kenta Maeda, so putting an extra left-handed bat in the lineup appears logical.

“Stephen’s done a great job for us,” Baker said. “I played Stephen as much as I could [in the regular season] on my bench…he’s going to be a big guy in these playoffs, too.”

Espinosa isn’t a stranger to calls for his job. Prior to his monster June, some fans wanted to see then-shortstop prospect Trea Turner called up from Triple-A to take over in the six-hole. But after Espinosa’s big month, the Nats moved Turner was moved to center field to get both of their bats in the order.

A few months later, Espinosa is again facing questions about his place in the lineup. But with the season on the line the time around, the Nats have to hope he can respond as he did before. 

[MORE: LOBATON IN TO CATCH ROARK IN GAME 2]

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Zimmerman's multi-hit night, Severino's playoff debut and other positives from Game 1

Zimmerman's multi-hit night, Severino's playoff debut and other positives from Game 1

The Nationals 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Division Series was defined by starter Max Scherzer’s early struggles and the offense’s squandered opportunities against Clayton Kershaw. Though Washington finds itself in a 1-0 hole, there were a few positive developments that came out of Friday’s game that could pay dividends as the series progresses.  

Zimmerman’s return: For most of the season, Dusty Baker has called Ryan Zimmerman his “hard luck” guy; the hitter that has squared up his fair share of pitches only to have them land right at a defender. On Friday night, the veteran first baseman finally had a few of those well-struck balls fall for hits. Zimmerman finished the game 2-for-4 with a pair of single off Kershaw and couple of deep fly outs that briefly looked like they’d leave the yard.  

“I thought that I had a really good approach tonight,” Zimmerman said.  “I hit three balls hard off of Clayton and then just missed a slider off of Baez there. I feel good, so hopefully I can carry that into tomorrow and hopefully for a lot more games here this month.”

“It was real good. He was being aggressive,” Baker added. “He's seeing the ball well and it's right on time. We anticipate more of that tomorrow, during the game. And he just missed two home runs, one to right and one to left. And so, that's a great sign, when he's hitting the ball like that.”

Severino’s impresses in playoff debut: Obviously, the Nats would much rather have Wilson Ramos as their starting catcher in the playoffs. But with the All-Star lost with an ACL tear, it was up to rookie Pedro Severino to pick up the slack. And the result, to the surprise of some, was much better than expected. The 23-year-old went 1-for-3 with a double and a run scored off Kershaw.

"Very excited to participate and try to enjoy the moment,” he said through an interpreter. 

“He did a great job,” Baker said. “He did a great job calling pitches. He hit a couple balls extremely hard....Seve was Seve. He has good life. You know that he's exuberant. You know that he wants to win.”

In addition to what he did at the plate, Severino served as Scherzer's battery mate for just the second time in his career. 

“I’m very excited and grateful that Scherzer gave me the confidence to catch him and we did a pretty good job of limiting the damage out there,” Severino said. “We’re working very well as a unit. We were able to keep the team in the game 4-0 and kept it there.”

Baker said that Severino will likely be on the bench to start Game 2 because of Jose Lobaton's career numbers against starter Rich Hill. But if Game 1 was indication, the moment isn't too big for the rookie catcher. 

Solis shines, too: Speaking of first-time contributors, Sammy Solis acquitted himself quite well in his first-ever playoff appearance. Coming in relief of Scherzer in the seventh inning, the 28-year-old lefty pitched two scoreless frames to keep the deficit at 4-3. That Baker went to Solis immediately after taking out Scherzer demonstrates a growing trust in someone who has become the bullpen's most reliable south paw. 

Robinson’s ends extra-base drought: After the All-Star break, reserve first baseman Clint Robinson was 26-for-103 — all of those hits singles. In fact, his last extra-base hit came on a July 8 home run against the New York Mets. So, as the baseball gods would have it, that drought ended in his first at-bat of the playoffs. He came through with a two-out pinch-hit double in the eighth inning off Dodgers closer Kenlsey Jansen. The two-bagger was not only set up the Nats’ last legitimate scoring opportunity of the night, but it was their only hit off Jansen, who converted a five-out save.