WASHINGTON, D.C.: Things got dark there for a while for Tanner Roark. Over a string of 14 appearances (13 starts) between May 5th and July 13th, the Washington Nationals’ 31-year-old righty was (1-10), putting up a 5.52 ERA and a .300/.372/.465 line against in 76 2⁄3 IP.
He shaved his beard into a 70s-style mustache with sideburns, then shaved those off along with the rest of his hair, and held what was a really uncomfortable interview with reporters following a July 8th outing against the Miami Marlins which saw him give up four runs on 10 hits, throwing 102 pitches in four innings before manager Davey Martinez pulled the plug.
His post game interview that night consisted of about 20 contentious words total in response to five questions from reporters.
The normally affable pitcher admitted recently that he usually doesn’t show that side in public, but his frustration got the best of him.
“I was a little fired up,” he joked when asked about that interview this week, with that rough stretch behind him, and coming off three scoreless in a rain-shortened start against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he’d extended an unbeaten streak to six straight outings, over which he’s put up a 1.63 ERA and .206/.236/.270 line against in 38 2⁄3 IP.
“I’ve never been fired up ... to you guys. But I mean, this game can be frustrating.”
His perspective, he explained, which makes sense for a pitcher who fought his way up from the Frontier League to the majors, is that he was being tested by the game during that time, and he’s not going to let the game win.
“Every time I get tested like this, it’s a test,” he said. “I treat as a test, like this game is testing me to where I’m not going to let it beat me because it’s a game. I’m stronger than the game.”
Things started to turn around for him on the mound in Citi Field on July 13th, when he gave up four runs in the first two innings of what ended up a 4-2 loss.
“We were down 4-0 through two,” Roark explained, “... and I was in the third inning you know, I’m like, ‘I’m (3-12), I’m lined up for another loss, here we go. Screw it. Here we go.’
“And built off that one, kept building, and building, and building, and building and just keep on building.”
The three scoreless he threw against the Phillies this week? More building.
“I’m just — off of each and every start just building confidence in each pitch that I throw, no matter what the count is,” Roark said on Tuesday night. “Trusting [Matt] Wieters behind the plate, as soon as the ball leaves my hand it’s out of my — I’ve executed it and done my best to execute it and have the conviction on the pitch. Whatever they do behind that, happens -- errors or whatnot, hits, so be it.”
The letting go of what he can’t control, Roark said, has made all the difference as he’s been able to turn things around.
“Yeah, you start to trust your stuff even more, trust yourself even more, trust your mind even more,” he said. And not to disparage the other backstops he worked with, but Wieters being back has helped him too.
“He’s an experienced catcher,” Roark said. “He’s helped me out a lot. I was throwing my bullpen in Pittsburgh, and he was talking to me like — I wasn’t using my fastball at the time as much, and so now we started to use the fastball a lot more, and have the hitters make a decision if it’s going to be a strike or a ball in a split-second, or it’s going to be a four-seamer, two-seamer or a changeup, so it’s just the more I play off my fastball, the better my other stuff is, my secondary stuff is.”
“It was not the fact that I think his other pitches aren’t good,” Wieters explained, “it’s just about how economical and how successful can we be. You always want to try — Tanner’s got a mentality where he wants to work harder, work harder, work harder, which is great, and there’s also some times where you can work smarter, and I think that’s what he kind of realizes is, ‘Okay, I can work hard, but I can also work smarter and get some easier outs and get deeper in games.”
Finding his sinker again, which he’d lost for a while, has helped too.
“I think more than anything I think Tanner got back to who he was,” Wieters said.
“He got back to being a sinkerball guy. I think early in the year Tanner almost got himself in trouble because he does have four good pitches and he was trying to use them all the time, and I think lately he’s been able to make it a little bit easier on himself by just trusting his sinker and trusting that the ground balls for outs are sometimes a little bit easier than trying to use all four pitches throughout the course of an at bat.
“The hitters will always tell you how good your sinker is, and Tanner can throw a 2-0 sinker and get a ground ball out of it, which means it’s a pretty good one.”
Now-former Nats’ reliever Brandon Kintzler played a big role, according to Roark, in helping him find his sinker again.
“Kintzler is a sinkerballer,” Roark said, “so he was helping me with that, to stay back long enough to get the release point and extension with the sinker, because I was behind the ball.
“You can’t throw a sinker when you’re behind the ball, it’s just going to stay on the same plane, and then the batter is going to still recognize it, and all they’ve got to do is go in or out, and now if it’s going down, it’s a tougher pitch to hit.”
All the struggles he endured before he got sorted out, Roark said, started with a seed in his head that grew into something that he couldn’t control.
“I mean, the beginning of the season I was doing really good and felt great, and then there was a span of like six or seven starts where I planted a seed in my head and it branched out to even more things and once you do that it kind of puts you in no man’s land, and you’re not even thinking about throwing strikes, you’re thinking about other things you’re doing and trying to do.
“So after I got over that one — that spell — I just basically said, ‘Screw it,’ and trust my stuff and attack guys like I know I can and have the confidence in myself to do that.”
That “seed”? What was it?
“Just little things over the course of the season,” Roark said, “over the course of the starts. Just getting extension — my release point and everything was good, and I just needed to get more extension, and I was trying to create extension, which I don’t even know how to create it, but I had help from [Pitching Coach Derek] Lilliquist, and Kintzler helped me out a lot, and just watched video and recognized that I wasn’t staying on the ball long enough.”
And it just clicked at some point?
“Yeah,” he said. “You start to trust your stuff even more, trust yourself even more, trust your mind even more.”