Tanner Roark was in his Chicago hotel room the morning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a few hours before the game he was supposed to start with his team’s season on the line, when he heard analysts dissecting his preparedness for such a moment. Many players avoid the talking heads, particularly so close to game time, but Roark has never been one to ignore the doubts of others. When channeled correctly, they can fuel their subject.
“It was [ticking] me off. I was going to use that as motivation,” Roark said Sunday at WinterFest, the team’s holiday fan festival. “But then I got to the field and it just didn’t work out that way.”
Roark never got the chance to use that motivation. When he got to the field, Stephen Strasburg was starting, apparently well enough to do so after being announced as a stunning Game 4 scratch less than two hours earlier. Strasburg, of course, threw seven scoreless innings in one of the most dominant playoff pitching performances in Nationals history.
“You can’t be mad about that,” Roark said with a laugh. Besides, in the aftermath of Game 4, Roark figured he might still have a chance to start Game 5.
As it happened, then-manager Dusty Baker chose Gio Gonzalez to start that game instead, making clear that Roark would be available out of the bullpen if Gonzalez got in trouble. Not long into the game, Roark — who began it in the dugout — was told to head out to the bullpen just in case. They never used him, opting for Max Scherzer in relief instead, a move that made sense at the time but nevertheless ensured that Roark, who had been poised to carry the Nationals’ season on his shoulders a day earlier, would not get his chance to pitch in October at all.
“It was definitely disappointing,” Roark said. “I was not happy. But . . . we had Max ready to go. Gio was fresh and Gio had a hell of a year. So it is what it is.”
Roark said Baker never provided an explanation for why he didn’t pitch, though in fairness, perhaps he felt that was obvious. In starting Gonzalez, the Nationals had hoped to force the Cubs into a heavily right-handed lineup they could then counter with Scherzer later, though Chicago Manager Joe Maddon eventually hedged his bets on that lineup anyway. In Scherzer, the Nationals brought in a reigning Cy Young Award winner with an affinity for game-changing situations. Scherzer’s outing did change Game 5. It just didn’t change it for the better, which makes second-guessing easier in the end.
That moment, and the bullpen decisions that followed, will be questioned for years. Even Koda Glover, who missed the end of the 2017 season due to injury, said he watched and wondered how Scherzer’s inning and those that followed might have been different if he were healthy. He felt it was his spot.
But Glover’s wondering is, and was, a moot point. He couldn’t have pitched in October. Roark, who pitched from the World Baseball Classic in March through the entire season, could have. Perhaps because of the changes to his routine forced by the WBC, Roark wasn’t himself for much of the season, pitching to a 4.67 ERA and a 1.335 WHIP — both the highest marks of his career.
Roark began the season as a relatively clear number three ahead of Gonzalez, but fell behind him on the depth chart due to his own inconsistency and Gonzalez’s magical knack for getting out of trouble. The Nationals had three of the best six ERAs in the league in their starting rotation. Roark’s wasn’t one of them, though his confidence and mentality seemed to suit themselves better to the big stage than Gonzalez, who has proven himself unpredictable in playoff situations. Gonzalez did not last long in Game 5. Roark did not get his chance at all.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted to finish the year, not pitching at all, but with the group of guys that we have, the pitching staff that we have, I’d put them out there any time,” said Roark, who is used to having to walk the public tightrope when it comes to questions like these.
More than any other National, Roark has dealt with the inevitable disappointments that come with being on a roster as loaded as this one, but not being considered one of its stars. Roark broke out with a 15-win season in 2014, only to find himself relegated to an uncomfortable combination of relief and starting duties when the Nationals acquired Scherzer for the 2015 season. Roark established himself as one of the National League’s most reliable starters as he won 16 games with a 2.83 ERA in 2016. He allowed two runs in 4 1/3 innings of his playoff start against the Dodgers. Whenever the Nationals needed to shuffle the rotation around Scherzer or Strasburg’s injury troubles, Roark was often the man to move up or back accordingly, seeing his routine sacrificed for that of his teammates.
“Tanner is the most underappreciated player we’ve got,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s an ultimate team player. This guy never says a negative word. He’s all about the team. And he’s the type of guy I love having on the mound. You know he’s going to leave everything out there.”
Roark is arbitration-eligible again this winter, meaning he and the Nationals will have to work things out over his 2017 salary. They agreed on a salary of $4.35 million for 2017. Roark’s agent handles those negotiations, but any frustrations Roark has could nevertheless trickle into those negotiations, particularly because it is always, understandably, the Nationals’ goal to pay as little as possible. Perhaps Roark’s frustrations won’t matter for those negotiations at all, but it’s worth watching.
Regardless, Roark has never shied away from speaking out, and was clear that not pitching in October left him frustrated. Hearing analysts say he wasn’t good enough for the opportunity motivated him that day. One could reasonably assume that the fact that he never got the chance to prove them wrong might motivate him even further for 2018.
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