CHICAGO — Illinois runs through Tanner Roark’s veins. He is the pride of Wilmington, a city of 5,724 people about 90 minutes from Wrigley Field. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. About 100 family members and friends chanted his name last year while he sat in the bullpen. Friday was Roark’s first start in his home state as a full-time member of the Washington Nationals’ rotation, and a large contingent of family and friends were in attendance to see him again, some donning homemade T-shirts with his name.
The homecoming was a frustrating jumble. Roark allowed four runs and a career-high 10 hits, all but one of them singles, over six laborious innings. With the Nationals already trailing, struggling left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins turned the game into a rout with a mess of a seventh inning. The Nationals dropped their third straight game, this one a 7-2 loss at the hands of one of the worst teams in baseball.
The Nationals now must sweep Saturday’s unusual doubleheader, a tough task, just to even the four-game series. The Cubs’ pitching staff has held the Nationals to five runs in two games, and the Nationals produced only eight base runners on Friday. But the Nationals’ pitching put the team in constant deficits.
“Just got base hit to death,” Roark said.
Before the game, Nationals Manager Matt Williams defended the Nationals’ base running this season despite their mistakes in the series opener against the Cubs. On Friday, the Nationals stayed aggressive, but two outs on the bases squandered two prime opportunities.
In the second inning, Adam LaRoche led off with a single and Ryan Zimmerman doubled. As left fielder Chris Coghlan recovered the ball along the left field wall, third base coach Bobby Henley waved LaRoche home. A strong relay throw would have beaten LaRoche, but Henley’s aggressiveness paid off when LaRoche slid in safely to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
But later in the inning, with runners on first and third and nobody out, Ian Desmond hit a chopper to third baseman Luis Valbuena. Zimmerman broke home on contact, and he was easily thrown out at the plate.
“I probably could have stayed at third, and he would’ve had a tough play to either go to second or obviously throw out Desi at first,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s just one of those things where you’re reading down and going to stay out of a double play.”
In the third inning, with the Nationals trailing 2-1, Rendon was caught stealing second for the third out with LaRoche batting. LaRoche homered off Cubs starter Jason Hammel to tie the game leading off the fourth.
“We’re going to play aggressively,” Williams said. “That’s our DNA. We’re not going to change. We had a chance to get Anthony to second potentially; it turned out that [LaRoche] hit a homer the next at-bat the next inning. Not saying he would’ve that at-bat, but that’s kind of the way they’ve gone the last couple days for us.”
After LaRoche’s blast, Roark quickly allowed another two runs in the bottom of the fourth. With a standout cut-back fastball, curveball and change-up, Roark has neutralized left-handed batters all season. Entering Friday’s game, Roark held left-handers to a .192 batting average while right-handed hitters hit .268. The Cubs featured five left-handed batters in Friday’s lineup, but Roark struggled anyway.
His troubles began in the second inning when he needed 34 pitches to notch three outs. He gave up four straight hits, including the only extra-base hit he allowed. Only three outs and seven batters into the game, Roark was already fielding a mound visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty. The Cubs continually fouled off his pitches, but Roark kept challenging them with strikes.
“Eventually they’re going to have to put the ball in play,” Roark said. “That’s one of my biggest strengths, that I throw strikes and they keep fouling them off. Got to go back up there and throw the next pitch and keeping doing that. And don’t give in.”
With one on in the fourth inning, Roark left a sinker over the plate for light-hitting catcher John Baker, who singled. Roark’s second pitch to Ryan Sweeney was a fastball over the outer half of the plate, and Sweeney lined it to center for a two-run single.
Before he backed up home plate, Roark smacked the dirt on the mound in disgust as the ball flew into the outfield.
“I couldn’t keep the first guy off base,” he said. “That was the biggest thing I feel like. Then there was a little pressure. Nothing I haven’t seen before. Just change-up, curveball, fastball was a little up [Friday], just a smidge, I feel like. They just put good wood on the ball.”
With the Nationals still trailing 4-2, Williams called on Blevins for the seventh inning, and the game descended into misery. Blevins allowed a leadoff double to Justin Ruggiano and then fired a wild pitch. After he notched one out, he intentionally walked Cubs cleanup hitter Starlin Castro. But then Blevins walked Valbuena to load the bases.
“When you’re missing strikes and falling behind, there’s not much good that’s going to come of that,” said Blevins, who added he noticed a mechanical tweak he needs to correct.
Blevins got the inning’s second out and faced Baker, a left-handed hitter. Left-handers entered the game with a .122 average against Blevins, but he hung an 0-1 curveball inside. “Bad pitch,” he said. Baker lined the ball to right field for a bases-clearing double that gave the Cubs a 7-2 lead.
“You keep it 4-2 with our offense, you can win the game,” he said. “You let up those three runs right there, [it] kind of deflates the momentum and even a chance at a fight.”
Blevins trudged off the mound with his ERA up to 5.34, unable to complete the inning, and the Nationals did little after that. The offense couldn’t string together consistent rallies, and Roark couldn’t keep the Cubs off the base paths in front of his home-state crowd.