Tanner Roark woke up on the morning of October 11, 2017, thinking he was going to start a win-or-go-home NLDS Game 4 against the Chicago Cubs. He never did start in that game. Stephen Strasburg, who’d been battling flu-like symptoms, recovered and faced the Cubbies in Wrigley Field, throwing seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 win.
Now-former Washington Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker was asked before that win how Roark reacted to finding out he wouldn’t get the ball.
“Well, you know, we can't tell you everything,” Baker said, “but he was ready to pitch.”
“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 him today because we have a lot of other available arms and a good chance, you know, he'll pitch some time in Game 5. We haven't decided whether we'll start him or somebody else. Depends on how the day goes today.”
Roark never pitched in Game 5 either. Gio Gonzalez started, and the division series ended without the right-hander ever taking the mound.
“It was pretty emotional for me,” Roark told reporters on Sunday, when he spoke about the NLDS for the first time during WinterFest in D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
“Just going back and forth, not knowing, knowing, and then I was ready to go — I remember that morning — to pitch, and people were on TV like talking that I wasn’t good enough or something, and it was pissing me off, so I was going to use that as motivation.
But then I got to the field and it just didn’t work out that way, and Stephen had a hell of a game anyway. Seven scoreless is pretty good.”
“You can’t be mad at that. It was mixed emotions. It’s part of the game, and that’s part of what I’ve learned in this whole process.”
Roark never expressed his disappointment to the team. He was asked if Baker ever told him why he didn’t end up on the mound in the NLDS.
“No.” Roark said. “No.”
“Yeah, it was definitely disappointing,” he said of not getting on the mound at all vs the Cubs.
“I was not happy, but like I said, we had Max [Scherzer] ready to go. Gio [Gonzalez] was fresh, Gio had a hell of a year, so it just is what it is, and we ended up losing. It is what it is, you can’t do much about it.”
The way he handled it all didn’t go unnoticed.
“Tanner is the most under-appreciated player we’ve got,” Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said when he too spoke to reporters on Sunday.
“He’s the ultimate team player. This guy never says a negative word. He’s all about the team. He’s the type of guy that I love having him on the mound, you know he’s going to leave everything out there, and he’s been very, very successful in his career here, and we hope that continues. We control him for a long time, and we’re looking forward to him having a big season.”
Roark, 31, bounced back from a slow start to his 2017 campaign, (which followed a trip to the World Baseball Classic, where he was used sparingly), 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, which was a 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).
What was different in the second half?
“Just not thinking,” Roark said.
“Not being inside my head and thinking I needed to change stuff, and just trusting my stuff and being the old Tanner that we all know and love, right?”
“That’s what it was,” Roark said. “It was just stop thinking and trust it and let it happen.”
This time around, Roark doesn’t have to worry about preparing to pitch in the WBC, and then not really pitching that much in the tournament.
He can get back to the way he’d previously prepared for the regular season.
“I’m taking it slower,” Roark said of his offseason prep. “I feel like I’m way behind, but I’m actually not.
“I think I’m way ahead still, which is good, I haven’t started throwing or anything yet, just a tennis ball off a wall, but I feel like I’m ready to go and I’ve learned — at least I wasn’t hurt during that WBC, that’s all I’m happy about, and I didn’t get hurt all of last year, so knock on wood.”