The Washington Nationals envision a time in the not-so-distant future when they will finally field their complete lineup, the dangerously deep group they believe will aptly complement their top-tier pitching staff and fuel a playoff run. But that lineup isn’t available yet. Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy are on rehab assignments. Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t started his. A week into June, the Nationals are still waiting.
In the meantime, the club must continue to rely on the pieces in place to score, a formula that has barely sufficed to regularly support the National League’s best starting rotation. Nobody has felt the lack of run support more this season than Tanner Roark, whose tough luck finally flipped Wednesday in an 11-2 rout of the Tampa Bay Rays to complete a two-game series sweep at Nationals Park.
“We needed this for Tanner,” Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon said.
Eight Nationals — every starter but Pedro Severino — combined to spray 15 hits to all fields without any landing over the wall for a club leading the NL in home runs. Rendon went 4 for 5 with two doubles and three RBI on his 28th birthday. Michael A. Taylor, now batting .315 over his past 15 games, tallied three hits, including a double, and three RBI. Juan Soto, still just 19 years old, added two hits and a walk against a couple of lefties. And it all began with a first-inning blitz against a reliever.
While the Nationals (35-25) have depended on their starters to shoulder heavy workloads, the Rays (28-32) unveiled a radical counterapproach to pitching-staff usage this season — scheduling so-called “bullpen” days instead of using a traditional starting pitcher. Wednesday was one of those days, and left-hander Jonny Venters, with his 0.87 ERA as a reliever, drew his first start.
It was just the latest milestone for Venters, who returned to the majors this season for the first time since 2012 after undergoing three Tommy John surgeries and a fourth elbow procedure. It was his first career major league start and the first by a three-time Tommy John recipient.
Venters didn’t last very long, failing to make it through the first inning. He was chased after recording one out as the Nationals, anemic for much of the past month, scored twice before recording an out, thanks to Rendon’s two-run double. Taylor then added an RBI double for the first of his two hits to right field, products of a recent mechanical adjustment to shorten his swing to rediscover his success from last season.
“It’s paid off,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s swinging the bat a lot better.”
Three batters later, after the Rays elected to intentionally walk the light-hitting Severino to load the bases, Roark burned them with a two-run single off Ryan Yarbrough, a conventional starter in relief.
“We’re just as important as everybody else,” Roark said, “so we have to hit.”
With the hit, Roark helped himself to run support he wasn’t receiving over the previous month. Entering Wednesday, Washington was averaging 2.92 runs per start for Roark this season, the fourth-lowest mark in baseball. The Nationals had combined to tally seven runs for Roark when he was still in the game in his previous six starts. That total was almost matched by the end of the second inning Wednesday after Taylor smacked an RBI single to make it 6-0.
“It just gives you a lot more confidence in your stuff,” Roark said, “and that you can go attack these guys a little more and not try to be too fine.”
Boasting a two-seam fastball with vicious movement, Roark worked efficiently with the surplus a day after Max Scherzer plowed through a nearly identical Rays lineup. He wasn’t as dominant, but that wasn’t necessary. The right-hander, making his first appearance since allowing a walk-off home run in a relief outing Sunday, needed just 84 pitches to limit the Rays to two runs on six hits across six innings. He walked one and struck out four. He finally got the run support he needed and proved, yet again, that old-fashioned quality starting pitching usually does the job with a little help.