Tanner Roark had to be happy to get his first victory over his former team Tuesday night in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 5-1 victory over the Nats.
Roark started his major league career in Washington and had to feel like an overlooked potential ace before being shipped to Cincinnati after the 2018 season for Tanner Rainey, a Tanner-for-Tanner swap. Now he’s a key cog in a team that has moved above .500 and within reach of the American League East lead.
In five innings of work, the 33-year-old right-hander gave up just three hits and struck out five on an assortment of fastballs and sliders, walking none. The only extra-base hit in that span, a third-inning double to Trea Turner, became the only blemish in the runs column when Adam Eaton drove in Turner. But most important to Roark may have been beating a club that seemed to give up on him several times.
Roark emerged as an effective rookie hurler in 2013, going 4-0 with a 1.19 ERA out of the bullpen for the reigning National League East champions. That earned him a spot in the rotation in September, where he went 3-1 in five starts for an otherwise disappointing Nats team.
With the fifth-starter spot in hand, Roark started 2014 by winning his first two decisions, including his first career shutout, a complete-game three hitter against the San Diego Padres. Taking the ball every fifth day afterward, Roark rolled up an 15-10 record with a 2.85 ERA, 138 strikeouts and just 39 walks. He worked at least seven innings in 19 of his 31 starts. But he was the odd man out of manager Matt Williams’ rotation in the National League Division series, taking the loss after pitching just one inning in the marathon 18-inning Game 2 loss to San Francisco, which all but broke the Nats’ backs. He was ineffective out of the pen again in the 3-2 series-clinching loss in game 4.
No matter how uncomfortable Roark seemed in the bullpen, he was banished there in that awkward 2015 season, after the Nats acquired Max Scherzer but had not yet parted ways with their reigning ace, Jordan Zimmermann. With no place in the rotation and no clearly defined role in the bullpen, Roark seemed to always labor, losing two decisions and blowing a save before picking up his first win on May 25. He kept the great K/BB ratio with 70/26 but gave up 17 home runs, many in big spots, in a (4-7) season that seemed a waste of his talent. He did lose three straight decisions down the stretch as the Nats not only faded from the NL East race but imploded under Williams, costing the manager his job.
With Zimmerman gone to Detroit in 2016, Roark was back in the No. 5 starting slot, and guess what? He was a solid workhorse again all season, going 16-10 in 34 starts, with 19 appearances of at least seven innings. He struck out a career-high 172 batters.
This time, Roark was rewarded for a fine regular season when Dusty Baker gave him the ball in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Dodgers. He pitched a risky, but effective 4 1⁄3 innings, allowing seven hits but just two runs in an eventual a 5-2 victory that evened the series at one game apiece. But despite Roark being available in Games 4 and 5, Baker went with Joe Ross in the first attempt to close put the series in LA, and ace Scherzer in the Game 5 loss.
Roark bounced back again in 2017 with a typical season, 13-11 in 31 starts and 181 1⁄3 innings.
Despite his fourth dependable, consistent season as a starter, Roark was not even in the Nats’ postseason plans against the defending world champion Chicago Cubs. With Scherzer thrown off his regular rest because of an injury, Roark sat idle as Baker chose lefty Gio Gonzalez to start Games 2 and 5, both Nats’ losses.
The next season, after Baker and trusty pitching coach Mike Maddux were jettisoned, Roark had a tough luck season on the mound. The great K/BB ratio was still there, but he surrendered 24 homers in his third straight season throwing at least 180 innings, and his record was a career-worst 9-15 and a 4.34 ERA, as the Nats never caught fire under first-year skipper Davey Martinez.
The Nats made big changes to the rotation for the 2019 season, bringing in Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez, and this time Roark was the odd man out, heading off to Cincy in the swap of the Tanners. After a 10-10 2019 season split between the Reds and Athletics, Roark is looking for a fresh start in Toronto and seems off to a good start.
But the Tanner the Nats got in the trade, Rainey, may turn out to be well worth the price. After going 2-3 with 74 strikeouts in just 48 innings. Roark was one of the few regular bullpen pitchers who were effective in the Nats’ World Series run. He took the ball nine times in 16 games, with six strikeouts but six walks in 6 1⁄3 innings. Crucially, he protected leads in the first two World Series victories over Houston.
This year, he’s 1-0 out of the bullpen and has yet to allow an earned run in three appearances. It’s not hard to envision him stepping into a later-inning role should Will Harris continue to struggle.
If there were fans at Nats Park on Tuesday night, they would have given Tanner Roark a nice ovation when he left the mound. After all that he gave the Nats from 2013-18, he deserved it. Let’s hope the man he was traded for can have such a great Nats career.