For all the love the Washington Nationals showered on Tanner Roark in the hours when it looked like Stephen Strasburg would not be able to go in Game 4 of the NLDS and Roark would, and there was plenty of it, the Nats never used the right-hander, at all, in the postseason. Not as a starter, not as a relief option, not even in the decisive Game 5 with the Chicago Cubs, when it was all hands on deck.
Roark never took the mound in the five games the Nationals and Cubs played.
When it looked like he was going to be the Game 4 starter, however, before Strasburg got over the flu-like symptoms and asked for the ball, the Nationals expressed their confidence in Roark’s ability, with the team trailing 2-1 to the Cubs and on the brink of elimination in the best-of-five series.
“We've got full confidence in Tanner,” now-former Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker told reporters after announcing that Strasburg was under the weather and Roark, who was originally supposed to start that night, would still be the one to go the next day after Game 4 was postponed by rain in Chicago.
“We have full confidence in Tanner,” Baker said. He repeated the line three times in his meeting with reporters on October 10th.
Roark, 31, bounced back from a slow start to the 2017 campaign, posting a 3.90 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 28 walks (3.12 BB/9), 86 Ks (9.60 K/9), and a .222/.292/.397 line against over 80 2⁄3 innings in the second half, showing significant improvement over his rough first half (5.27 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 36 walks (3.22 BB/9), 80 Ks (7.15 K/9), and a .275/.343/.417 line against in 100 2⁄3 IP).
“We just decided to go with a guy that has won 15, 16 and 13 games in the big leagues for us and is a reliable starter,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on the morning of October 11th, before he learned that Strasburg decided he was good to go that night.
“We’d rather have Strasburg on full five days’ rest at 100 percent, feeling great, but that’s not the case,” Rizzo said. “We feel that with Tanner pitching the way he’s pitching, at full go, 100 percent, prepared and focused and set to pitch this game throughout the playoffs — we feel that’s our best chance to win Game 4 and that’s who we’re going with.”
He said much the same in a pregame press conference after learning that Strasburg was able to start. Before he decided he could go, Strasburg told them he would give the Nationals everything he had in spite of his illness.
“We felt at that time it wasn't enough when we have a guy like Tanner Roark there that's able to start,” Rizzo said.
“Tanner was prepared. It was his day to start, and we felt very, very comfortable giving him the ball in Game 4.”
“When you guys said Tanner Roark was going to start,” a reporter asked, “were you pretty sure Stephen wasn’t going to start? Was it at that point [you] felt it wasn’t a possibility at all?”
“Well, first of all, a lot had to do with Tanner Roark,” Rizzo said. “This guy is a guy I have great confidence in. You know, he's won 15, 16 games the last couple years, 13 games this year. This guy is a very good Major League starter. We felt that Tanner was a better option than going with a depleted Stephen Strasburg.
“But once we saw that Stephen was more like himself, we felt like this was a better option.”
Baker was asked in his own pregame presser how Roark took the news when he was told that it would be Strasburg starting in Game 4 instead.
“Well, you know, we can't tell you everything, but he was ready to pitch,” Baker said.
“I'm sure he was disappointed. You know, he didn't really say a whole bunch. We just told him, ‘Hey, man, he might be available today.’ We'll probably not try to use [Roark] today because we have a lot of other available arms and a good chance, you know, he'll pitch sometime in Game 5. We haven't decided whether we'll start him or somebody else. Depends on how the day goes today.”
Baker said after the Nationals’ Game 4 win that he was still deciding between Roark and Gio Gonzalez for the Game 5 start.
When it was finally decided it would be Gonzalez, Baker shared his thinking in choosing the left-hander over Roark.
“Well, we weighed it out, right-left, and who's been, you know, the best behind the other two guys, but everybody is on call,” he said.
“And you know, Gio had gone Game 5 a couple years ago, three years ago, you know, and didn't do too well, so I'm sure redemption is on his mind, as well. All those factors went into choosing today's starter.”
REPORTER: “Is Tanner Roark available today?”
DUSTY BAKER: “Yes.”
REPORTER: “And would he be an option for you?”
DUSTY BAKER: “Yes, he would. Probably the early option.”
Gonzalez went just three innings, giving up three hits, four walks, and three earned runs. Baker then went to Matt Albers, who tossed a scoreless fourth, Max Scherzer, who gave up three hits, a walk, and four runs, two earned, surrendering the lead in what was his first relief appearance since the postseason in 2013. Brandon Kintzler, Sammy Solis, Ryan Madson, and Sean Doolittle followed in what ended up a 9-8 loss.
Did his up-and-down 2017 season leave the Nationals less than confident in Roark’s abilities? Was he an ace up Baker’s sleeve the manager never got a chance to throw down?
Will a normal schedule during Spring Training and a fresh start be the difference for the veteran righty in 2018 after he pitched in the World Baseball Classic last March, got off to a slow start, and never seemed as sharp as he’d been in the previous few seasons?
Roark refused to use that experience, and his lack of innings early in 2017 as an excuse, but was it a factor in his struggles?
“I use that for fuel for the fire,” Roark said in mid-September, “so people that doubt me and people that [say], ‘Oh, he started too early this year with the World Baseball Classic,’ and all that stuff, ‘He’s getting tired.’ I just try to use that as fire and prove everybody wrong that doubts me.”
Roark will have motivation and more to prove in 2018 after the way his 2017 campaign ended.