After another rough outing, after shaving his head and changing his warmup song and analyzing film did not alter his results in the Washington Nationals’ 10-2 loss to the Miami Marlins on Sunday, Tanner Roark did not have much to say.
“I don’t know,” Roark said. “I felt great.”
Is, as Manager Dave Martinez suggested, leaving the ball up too often the reason he has allowed 54 hits in his previous 37 innings?
“Good question,” Roark said. “Next.”
What is causing a man once so able to keep the ball down in the zone to leave so many pitches thigh-high — enough that he is pitching to an 8.52 ERA over his past five starts?
“Yes, usually thigh-high pitches get smoked,” Roark said. He then acknowledged that the next few days will be a reset period for him. No one had much to say after that.
Starting pitchers are obligated to meet with the media after games, and no one likes to do so when things go poorly. Roark is not usually so dismissive, so snarky and so short. He is a man out of answers, so frustrated he is unwilling even to attempt to give them.
“We’re going to have to sit down and figure this whole thing out with him because I know he’s better than that and so does he,” Martinez said. “We talk about him throwing the ball down, and he goes through a stretch where he gets the ball down and looks really good, and then he elevates again and gets hit.”
Though the Nationals seemed reinvigorated these past few days, Sunday’s loss served as a reminder that they are not suddenly infallible. The problem that sent them spiraling in the first place cannot be rectified by even the most rousing of team meetings. Since an injury to Stephen Strasburg shook its foundation, their rotation continues to tremble in its wake, and Roark simply cannot find his balance.
He needed 102 pitches to crawl through four innings Sunday and forced Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson — who needed rest — to cover innings late. The bullpen was so decimated by Roark’s short outing and the multitude of short outings this rotation has provided before it that starting third baseman Mark Reynolds — who also had two of the Nationals’ five hits — had to get an out in the ninth. All together, the Nationals surrendered 22 hits. If there is a silver lining to it all, it is that the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies both lost, too. The Nationals remain five games back in the National League East.
Roark has been so desperate to reverse his fortunes that he is altering non-baseball habits in the hopes they will help his pitching. For years, he pitched to Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” but the song betrayed him like the mutton chops he sported in June. He ditched them both, shaving all his hair after allowing nine runs despite feeling strong in his last outing.
All the changes didn’t help. He allowed three base runners in the first inning Sunday, then three runs on four hits in the second.
By the third, he began to show frustration. After a leadoff single, shortstop Trea Turner could not get a would-be double play ball out of his glove. Roark stomped back to the mound, indignant at getting one out instead of two. He had permitted more hits than he had gotten outs by then.
Over and over he insists he is healthy. Over and over he says his stuff feels good. His velocity is consistent. His stuff is moving, perhaps too much. He watches video, he tinkers, and he hopes. But despite his best efforts, all Roark, 31, has done lately is struggle.
When he was at his best, going 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 2016, Roark conjured soft contact better than all but one starter in the National League. That season, 23.3 percent of the contact made against him met FanGraphs’s requirements for “soft.” Entering Sunday’s start, he had allowed 18.8 percent soft contact and more than 30 percent hard contact — by far a career high.
And while Roark sometimes says he finds solace in getting “singled to death” instead of pummeled with home runs and extra-base hits, those singles have come so frequently lately that they no longer seem to be an inevitable by-product of his pitching style as they did in his better days. He has allowed 60 base runners in his past five starts while recording 76 total outs.
“Sometimes we think he’s too quick [and] his head comes out first,” Martinez said. “Sometimes from where I’m sitting, I can see the ball for a long period of time, so I know the hitters can see it, too.”
Meetings do not rectify everything, though even with Sunday’s loss, it does seem the one the Nationals held before this series helped. They took three of four from a losing team, and in so doing rejoined the ranks of the winning teams, though barely.
Washington has seven games left before the all-star break — three at Pittsburgh, four at the New York Mets, both with losing records — and need to continue that trend as much as Roark needs to reverse his.