After making his first start of the Spring, a 33-pitch outing in which he threw two scoreless frames against the Tampa Bay Rays, Tanner Roark, 29, talked to reporters about being back in a starting role after spending a season in the Washington Nationals' bullpen in 2015. He said he'd talked to new skipper Dusty Baker about wanting to rejoin the rotation.
"It was short," he said of the conversation. "I told you guys once before that I wanted to start and I'm telling you guys again that I want to start and I feel like I'm a competitor on the mound and I know that the fight inside me -- is a starter that can go multiple innings and I build off each inning. It's a big mental part I think I've learned a lot. There's always so much to learn, but I feel like I have to prove myself to people. I’ve still got to prove myself even more."
"That's something that we talked about," Baker said before Roark took the mound on Wednesday, acknowledging that they discussed the righty's preference for starting..
"I'm not going to put a muzzle on my guys, and I told him, 'Hey, man, if that's something that you want to say, then say it,' know what I mean? I wasn't here before and I don't know what happened, but I mean, if I had won fifteen games, I would have expected to try to come back and win twenty."
Roark, of course, won fifteen in the Nationals' rotation in 2014, but was pushed out when Max Scherzer signed on in the nation's capital. He struggled to find a role in the bullpen, but did what was asked of him.
"Most guys that win fifteen don't go to the bullpen," Baker said.
"I don't know what the circumstances were, I don't know what happened, I don't know anything, but I told him that we're going to give him a chance to start because he had earned it, plus, he didn't complain, not that I saw, and he said all the right things when I talked to him.
"He said that he just wants to win, but that was last year, this year he wants to win and start, and you can't blame him. But we'll see how it fits. I didn't make any promises, which I never do, but we'll see how things work out."
Roark got off to a good start on Wednesday afternoon, striking out three Rays' hitters in his two scoreless frames. He said afterward that he was happy with his stuff considering it was his first outing.
"I thought that I was able to locate the ball pretty well with my fastball, curveball was eh, slider felt really good, felt tight, sharp, changeup felt good," he said.
"Everything, I felt, was not where it needed to be 100%, but getting there, I could feel it, so that's a good thing."
Roark talked this winter about his velocity jumping while he was in the bullpen last season, and the fact that he started trying to overpower hitters and just throw it by them before realizing that he was better off pitching like he did when he was starting. He said he felt like he was back throwing like he wanted to against the Rays, with his fastball in the low 90s and down in the zone.
"Just location. Hit your spots," he explained. "Like I said, I tried it last year where I tried to blow it by everybody and everything was up and down the middle, I wasn't locating it and when it's up and down the middle anybody can hit it, so try to live down at the knees and let the ball sink."
He was clear that he's not taking anything for granted as he prepares for the 2016 campaign, knowing that there are plenty of starters who want to be part of the rotation.
A reporter wondered if he felt like he had more to prove than in previous seasons after his year in the bullpen last summer?
"I feel like every year I've got to prove myself," Roark said. "There are guys down in the minor leagues like me when I got a taste of big league camp who would love to get a crack at being in my position and I don't want them to take my spot, so I think of it that way: This is my spot. My spot to earn. And every year I've got to come in like that, thinking that way, never be complacent."
Dusty Baker was asked before the game what he tells a pitcher like Roark when it comes to discussing roles and what a pitcher or any player wants to do?
"I'm not going to lie to them," the 66-year-old skipper said, "but I'm not going to promise them anything, so therefore you don't tell a lie. What I can do is give you an opportunity. That's what I tell them all. I can give you an opportunity, and then it's up to you to put the pressure on us through performance -- for us to make a decision.
"So, that's what I can do. I don't even know him other than what I've seen on TV and what I saw in his record. All I know is his record looks pretty good and his stuff looks pretty good and I talked to some people here, they say he's one of the hardest working guys here, which impresses me big time. I'm about hard work and dedication."
"I'm a competitor," Roark said when asked what it's like competing with his teammates at this point in the Spring, "so... of course you want to compete against the other team, but I'm sure in all of us there's a little bit inside of us that, 'Beat out the next guy, beat out the next guy, beat out the next guy.' You want to be, in your eyes, no.1, the no.1 starter no matter who is on the staff, no matter if that person has better stuff than you, no matter if they have more wins than, you want to be better than the next and that's what's great about the starters and the competition level that we have here is that each person wants to do better than the next person."
Will Roark end up being one of the top five when Spring Training is over? It's up to him to prove to Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux that he belongs.