With his lost season in the Washington Nationals' bullpen in 2015 behind him, Tanner Roark entered Spring Training on a mission. He wanted to return to the starting rotation. Roark told his new manager as much early in the process.
"It was short," he said of the conversation with Dusty Baker this Spring.
"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 acknowledged when asked about Roark's preference for starting over relieving.
"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."
"Most guys that win fifteen don't go to the bullpen," he added.
In four starts and five appearances overall this Spring, Roark, 29, was (2-0) with 21 hits and four earned runs allowed in 18 innings, over which he struck out 17 and held opposing hitters to a .284 AVG.
Before the season opener in Atlanta earlier this week, Baker lined up his starters and announced that the Nationals would send Roark out in Game 3 as the starter in the home opener in Washington, D.C.
"He wants it," Baker said, as quoted by MASNSports.com's Mark Zuckerman.
"He told me when I talked to him in Spring Training: He wants to start.
"I told him: ‘Hey, man, if that’s what you want, then that’s what you go for. And if you want to tell the world, go ahead. It’s your mouth.’ And he told the world he wants to start. And here it is. Go for it. I like that attitude."
Through 48 starts in the majors before Thursday's outing, Roark had a 3.17 ERA, a 3.77 FIP, 57 walks (1.75 BB/9), 195 Ks (5.95 K/9) and a .245/.290/.370 line against in 295 innings as a starter.
Baker was asked this morning if he thought the decision to send Roark out in the first game of the year in Nationals Park would give him a boost of confidence as he returned to a starting role?
"I think so," he said. "I don't think confidence is his problem. I talked to him this winter and he was extremely confident.
"He told me that he wanted to be a starter and every time he goes out there, you can tell that he has a great feeling that he's going to win. I just feel confident watching him pitch, because he finds a way.
"He finds a way, especially as a rookie, he won 15 games, You don't see that too often, so I'm hoping he at least wins that and tops it maybe."
Roark got off to a rough start Thursday afternoon, giving up five hits and three runs in a 31-pitch top of the first inning against the Miami Marlins.
Washington rallied to tie it up at 3-3 in the bottom of the first, but after a 23-pitch second, Roark was up to 54 pitches.
Even with the high pitch count, the right-hander came back out after an hour and twenty-five minute delay and put in two more innings of work, finishing at 99 pitches in four innings pitched.
Baker talked after what ended up a 6-4 loss about the decision to send Roark back out after the extended delay.
"[Pitching coach] Mike Maddux and I talked about it, like always. We were getting pretty close to when it was going to be too long, but he was throwing in-between, in the bullpen, and I asked him, I said, 'Hey, man, you tell us the truth how you feel? Are you feeling any tightness or anything?' And he said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'I'm telling you the truth.' And he said it's too early, which I concur, it's too early for heroes in Game No.3. And so, you've got to take him at his word, he's a pretty honest guy and Mike evaluated and I evaluated and decided to send him back out there."
Roark did what he could on a day he wasn't particularly sharp. It didn't go as planned, but he's back where he wants to be with another opportunity to prove himself five days away.