NEW YORK — Progress never seems to come as quickly as those desperate for it hope it will. For a week or so now, the Washington Nationals have had to settle for gaining a game in the standings here and there. Until Friday night, Tanner Roark has had to settle for — well, just hope.
But even as Roark made incremental progress Friday by recovering from two rough innings with three strong ones, the Nationals fell to the New York Mets, 4-2. They are back to .500 at 47-47 and cannot seem to climb much above that mark without sliding right back. When they try to accelerate their progress in the season’s second half, they will need better from Roark. He finished his first half 3-12 with a 4.87 ERA.
“That’s progress, and it’s good for us,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “If he continues to do [what he did Friday], we’re going to be in good shape.”
After his previous start went poorly, Roark answered reporters’ questions, dismissing them with uncharacteristic snark. Roark later apologized. Outbursts like that aren’t him. Roark always has benefited from a dogged drive to succeed. Unfortunately, he always struggled against the frustration fostered by that mentality, too. Roark has watched video and pored over his mechanics and found optimism before. Each time, he came out of those sessions thinking this time he knew what was wrong, so the next time would be better.
But on Friday, Brandon Nimmo greeted him with a single to right field. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a single up the middle. Jose Bautista then singled to left, scoring Nimmo. The Mets added a sacrifice fly and another run-scoring single before the inning ending. Hoping for clean innings, Roark relapsed. He allowed four runs before he got his fourth out.
“Despite what happens in your game, you just have to go out there and not give in,” Roark said. “Keep going. Keep plugging away. Keep fighting, scratching — whatever it takes.”
The problem is that the Nationals need Roark’s best these days. They are not positioned to absorb on-the-job rehabilitation. Then again, when struggles defy explanation, sometimes the little things change the bigger ones.
After allowing those four runs, Roark blooped the ball into short right field against Noah Syndergaard to lead off the third inning. He chugged all the way to third base as it rolled awkwardly along the top of the wall in foul territory and evaded right fielder Nimmo. The Nationals’ starter ended up with the first extra-base hit of the day against Syndergaard, then he scored on the second — a double by Wilmer Difo. He was the first Nationals pitcher to triple in more than a decade.
Whether by coincidence or some other reason, Roark looked like his old pitching self after that. He said later he felt himself staying behind the ball better, keeping his arm synced with the rest of his body. He threw three scoreless innings in which he looked in command and able to use all of his pitches. He gave his team a chance against Syndergaard by ultimately allowing four runs in five innings in which he threw 87 pitches.
“I think he felt more comfortable today out there,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “He felt like he didn’t have to try and do too much. He was kind of a little bit more back in his element than he has in his last few starts. . . . We just weren’t able to come up with the big hit.”
Roark probably could have continued had the Nationals not needed to pinch-hit for him during a promising rally in the sixth. They could not capitalize on that rally. The Nationals put the leadoff man on in every inning against Syndergaard. They went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left six men on in the first five innings. They stranded two more against the Mets’ bullpen.
“We need to be more consistent with our at-bats, especially with runners in scoring position,” Martinez said. “. . . We got a guy on second base today with no outs. He stayed there. Those are the little things we always talk about, and we need to do better.”
And in the realm of little things that loom large, Bryce Harper stopped running less than halfway to first base when he hit a hard groundball to shortstop with two men on and one out in the fifth. He hit the ball so hard it could have been a hit if it had been an inch to either side, but it ended up a perfect double play ball. He was frustrated by the result, so he didn’t sprint. The play probably didn’t change because he didn’t run. The appearance of effort, whatever that’s worth, did.
“That’s a conversation Bryce and I will have tomorrow,” Martinez said. “He didn’t run that ball out the way I want him to, so we’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
Harper does not run out every groundball, and many times the outcome wouldn’t change if he did.
Those who do not sprint through the bag every time often argue they are preserving themselves for a long season. Many others argue that trying should never be circumstantial.
When things are not going well — and this contract year is not going as Harper might have hoped — effort is something that a player can control. As Roark knows, at some point those things will be all that a player — and his team — has left.