Back in the 5,700-person town of Wilmington, Ill., about an hour south of Chicago, a group of families and friends gathered in a garage at the end of a residential cul-de-sac. They huddled around a big screen television, connected to a computer, that carried the Nationals-Braves game. And in the fifth inning, they watched the player they had all been hoping to see.
There were a handful encouraging moments, perhaps fewer, amid the gloom of Wednesday’s loss and sweep to the Braves. And among them was the major league debut of Tanner Roark, the pride of Wilmington, Ill., for one night. The bullpen door swung open in the top of the fifth inning and the team’s new right-handed reliever jogged for the first time to a major league mound to pitch in a game.
Despite the nerves, it couldn’t have been more perfect. With high socks and his long hair flopping under his red Nationals cap, Roark fired 15 pitches and notched six outs. He made a diving play to catch a popped-up sacrifice bunt attempt in and turned a double play to end the sixth. Called up only the day before, Roark not only debuted but shone.
“As soon as (Jayson Werth’s) home run went out (in the fourth), I was up in the bullpen and they came even more, you know?” Roark said. “Nerves were high. First big league debut. It was great. It’s exciting. Very nerve-wracking. All in all, I’ll take it.”
Roark, 26, was called up from Class AAA Syracuse to the Nationals to serve as a hybrid long reliever and potential spot starter, a hybrid role occupied by injured Ross Ohlendorf. So when starter Jordan Zimmermann labored over four innings and Werth tied the game, it was the ideal situation for Roark to bridge the fifth and sixth innings to the seventh.
“He threw the ball well and was very athletic,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Made a heck of a play on that bunt.”
Roark fired 94 to 95 mile per hour fastballs in his first inning, His first pitch was a ball to Brian McCann and later got away with a high fastball, which McCann drove to center field for an out. Roark fired nine pitches in the fifth inning, inducing two groundouts with fastballs over the plate. He calmed his nerves by concentrating on only one thing, the same mindset that helped him post a 3.15 ERA in Syracuse and enjoy perhaps the best minor league season of his career.
“Look at the glove and don’t look at everything else around because I’ve never played in front of that big of a crowd,” he said. “It was the first time doing that obviously. All in all, it felt good.”
Roark coughed up a leadoff single in the sixth to B.J. Upton. But he got Andrelton Simmons to pop up a fastball that was over the plate. With Upton at first and one out, pitcher Kris Medlen tried to put down a sacrifice bunt. Instead, he popped the ball up. Roark dove for the ball on his knees and caught it about halfway to home plate. From one knee, he made a soft throw to Anthony Rendon at first to complete the double play.
“I’d like to see the replay of that because it didn’t feel as graceful as I’m sure it looked,” Roark said later, with a smile.
In the stands, Roark’s fiancee, her parents, her brother and wife watched. After the game, Roark found a flood of text messages on his cellphone from friends and family, including photos of the gathering in the garage around the big screen television back in his hometown of Wilmington, Ill.
FROM THE POST
As the spiral continues, Nationals fall 6-3 and are swept by the Braves, writes Adam Kilgore.
The Nationals’ problems are fundamental, writes Thomas Boswell.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 7, Syracuse 2: Danny Rosenbaum allowed two runs and walked four over four innings. Cole Kimball coughed up four runs over two innings and has a 14.92 ERA. Drew Storen allowed one run and struck out two on 15 pitches over 1 1/3 innings, and has a 9.00 ERA. Xavier Cedeno notched two outs and has a 1.37 ERA. Tyler Moore smashed his eighth homer and Zach Walters hit his 25th.
Harrisburg 3, Reading 2: Robbie Ray allowed two runs on five hits over six innings. He has a 3.20 ERA over seven starts. Matt Swynenberg tossed a scoreless inning and Tyler Herron notched a two-inning save. Carlos Rivero, Rick Hague and Jason Martinson each drove in a run. Justin Bloxom and Jimmy Van Ostrand both went 2 for 4.
Potomac 8, Carolina 7: Blake Schwartz allowed four runs, three earned, on eight hits over five innings. Robert Benincasa lowered his ERA to 2.61 with two scoreless innings. Colin Bates earned the win despite allowing a run. Kevin Keyes finished 2 for 5 with three RBI. Adrian Sanchez went 2 for 5 with two RBI. Caleb Ramsey and Michael Taylor each smacked three hits. Adrian Nieto finished 4 for 5 and is hitting .300.
Lakewood 6, Hagerstown 1: Ian Dickson coughed up three runs on five hits and walked two over five innings. Cody Davis tossed two scoreless. Stephen Perez went 1 for 4 with an RBI.
Aberdeen 3, Auburn 0: Robert Orlan allowed one run over five innings and struck out three while walking two. James Yezzo went 2 for 4 and is hitting .272.
Lucas Giolito allowed one run and struck out five over five innings for the GCL Nationals to earn his first professional win.