It was hard not to think about right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann's one career appearance as a reliever in the majors, in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, while watching right-hander Tanner Roark take the mound for his first career save opportunity in the ninth inning last night in Nationals Park.
Zimmermann, who went just three innings in his Game 2 start vs the St. Louis Cardinals that Fall, came into a 1-1 game with the Nats facing elimination if they lost Game 4 and struck out the side on twelve pitches.
Zimmermann was pumped, but the only person more excited about his outing was his manager, Davey Johnson.
"He came in, and I mean, he was hyped," Johnson told reporters after the Nationals won the game on Jayson Werth's epic walk-off home run. "That's the hardest I've seen him throw all year. I mean, his slider was like 91, and he just‑‑ some guys in our club said, 'That's our next closer.' I said, 'No way.'"
"But when he came off, I shook his hand and [pitching coach Steve McCatty] said, 'How you feeling,' and he said, 'I'm drained.'"
"He said, 'Well, don't be too drained, because you're going to probably start in three days.'"
"I had kind of a beat‑up bullpen," Johnson explained when asked about using Zimmermann in relief, "so I really needed that seventh inning to do the job, and he did a heck of a job."
"Zimm said to McCatty, he said, 'I just tried to throw it as hard as I could throw it.'
It reminded me of [Eric] Gagne when he came in as a reliever, he would throw it as hard as he could throw it.
"When you know he's going to be there for just one inning, and it was a throw day‑‑ as electric as he was, the temptation for me was, I don't have to hit, so let me leave him out there; I like watching this. But no, I was thinking about tomorrow. I didn't want him to go out there and hurt himself. But he was‑‑ I mean, 91‑mile‑an‑hour slider? You've got to be kidding me. That's pretty good, wasn't it?"
Johnson let out a big laugh there, thinking back on what he saw. His successor on the bench in the nation's capital, Matt Williams, was faced with a more difficult long-term decision this winter when it came to his starters.
After the Nats signed Max Scherzer to a 7-year/$210M deal, Williams and the Nats moved 15-game winner Tanner Roark to the bullpen.
Finding a role for the right-hander hander hasn't been easy, but after Craig Stammen went down with an injury and some of the back end arms have underperformed, Williams talked about starting to use Roark in more high-leverage situations.
"You saw it a little bit the other night," Williams said after he put Roark in for a quick 10-pitch seventh inning in a one-run game last month. "More of a one-inning stint type situation. He was available last night too, but we want to make sure we can ease him into that if we can because he's been a starter, because he's been a longer guy, the resiliency is key. So, depends on pitch count and the number of pitches the day before."
Though he threw three innings of long relief after starter A.J. Cole flamed out in his MLB debut in Atlanta last week, on Sunday afternoon in New York, Roark came on with a runner in scoring position at second and one out in the seventh inning of another one-run game and stranded the runner he inherited from Doug Fister in a quick, eight-pitch outing.
Williams apparently thought Roark was fresh enough that he could turn to him last night after using Aaron Barrett and Drew Storen in three of the last four games.
"They were unavailable," Williams said after last night's game. "So we had to go to other guys."
Blake Treinen, who gave up two runs without giving up a hit, and Matt Grace got the Nationals through the eighth, and they took the lead in the bottom of the inning, so Roark ended up entering the game in a save situation for the first time in his career.
Williams told reporters he was confident that Roark would be ready for the situation.
"He's been in big moments, he's been in big games," Williams said. "It doesn't matter to him which inning it is, it's about getting outs. That was the plan the whole day, to stay off those two guys. They were both unavailable today, they've been worked a lot."
Roark came out throwing heat, with a first-pitch fastball that hit 94. He dialed it up to 95 on a 1-2 heater that missed, then dropped an 87 mph curve on Reid Brignac to get a swinging K. Dee Gordon was behind 0-2 quickly after 94 and 95 mph fastballs, but he singled to center on an 87 mph 0-2 bender. Martin Prado got five straight fastballs that ranged from 93-95 and popped out to short on the fifth for out no.2.
For the record, Roark's fastball has averaged 91.5 mph over the course of his major league career.
"It's a testament to his attitude and his work ethic and he's excited to pitch, whenever that is," Williams said in talking about Roark's success in whatever role he's been asked to fill.
"Whether that's starting a game, whether that's in the sixth inning or whether it's closing a game. Cirumstances dictate sometimes that there are different roles for guys and he's the perfect mentality to put in that role. Because it doesn't much matter to him, it's about three outs and that's all."
The third out last night, came against Marlins' slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who stepped in 2 for 11 with a double and a home run off Roark in their respective careers.
Roark started behind 3-0, missing with a high fastball inside and two sliders away, then came belt-high inside with a fastball for a called strike that Stanton took. Roark got a swinging strike with a 3-1 slider that caught the low corner outside, then went right back to it to get Stanton swinging for the third out of his first major league save.
Roark was pumped.
Photo © Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports
"He got behind him," Williams said, "gave him a 3-0 fastball that he took and then two really good sliders. It's never comfortable when he stands at the plate, but Tanner made some good pitches tonight."
"Did you ever think you'd get a save?" MASN's Dan Kolko asked Roark in a post game interview on the field in Nationals Park.
"Not in a million years," Roark said. "We fought back hard. We put balls in pla--
Drew Storen and Matt Thornton got him.
"I just didn't really want [Stanton] to hurt me right there," Roark continued. "So if we walked him we get the next guy on deck but go right after him, don't give in, that's, I guess, my mentality, so just keep going after guys."
Roark said he was excited to get the opportunity and he seemed to enjoy the rush.
"It amps me up ten times more," he said. "The energy that I got from these guys back here on the bench and on the field, it was great and came out on top."