Apr 26, 2014, 5:59 PM EDT
On July 30, 2010, Mike Rizzo made a deadline deal with the Rangers that seemed notable at the time only for the fact the Nationals general manager was able to find a taker for under-performing, aging shortstop Cristian Guzman.
The two minor-league pitchers the Nationals received in return for Guzman had little pedigree. Ryan Tatusko was a 17th-round pick with a 4.46 ERA in three seasons in Class A. Tanner Roark was a 25th-round pick with a 4.20 ERA at Class AA and an uncertain future as either a starter or reliever.
So flash-forward to Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park and contemplate the improbability of the scene that was playing out. A crowd of 31,590 stood and roared as Roark fired his 105th and final pitch of the afternoon, striking out Jedd Gyorko to finish off the first shutout of his professional career, secure a 4-0 victory for the Nationals and improve to a stunning 9-1 with a 1.98 ERA as a big-league pitcher.
“You know, it’s definitely humbling to come out here and compete like I know I can compete at this level,” the unassuming 27-year-old said. “It feels really good. And a game like today just builds your confidence even more and more.”
Roark’s confidence is soaring these days, and for good reason. When he first enjoyed success for the Nationals late last summer, he was still something of a mystery, perhaps a fluke who caught the rest of the league by surprise.
But with each passing start, nearly all of them effective if not downright dominant, it’s hard to look at Roark as anything but the real deal now.
“I would say so,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You’ve gone through it enough times, it gets past being a fluke or a question mark. He’s great to play behind. You saw it tonight. He works quick, a lot of strikes and not afraid of contact. … He’s a bulldog out there.”
A bulldog with a growing resume that stacks up against anybody else in the majors. Consider this: Since he was called up from Class AAA Syracuse on August 6, only one other big-league pitcher has thrown as many innings as Roark while posting a lower ERA (Zack Greinke, 1.69).
And consider this: Over his first 86 big-league innings, Stephen Strasburg was 5-4 with a 2.72 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Over his first 86 1/3 big-league innings, Roark is 9-1 with a 1.98 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.
Strasburg was hailed as the greatest pitching phenom in decades. Roark is barely known among casual D.C. sports fans, let alone the rest of the country.
“That’s kind of his personality,” manager Matt Williams said. “He waits his turn to get the ball again. He takes the other parts of his game very seriously, as well as his pitching. He fields his position. He throws to the bases. He does a lot of things that are conducive to helping yourself win. And that’s not to mention his pitches, the way he goes about it.”
Roark went about everything brilliantly on Saturday. He retired the first 16 Padres he faced, carrying a perfect game into the top of the sixth. Rene Rivera’s line-drive single up the middle quashed any possibility of a history-making performance, but it didn’t quash Roark’s style on the mound.
The right-hander just went back to work and wound up going the distance, scattering three singles and a walk, striking out eight and keeping the entire Nationals’ bullpen from ever needing to do anything more than some light tossing, just in case.
“It’s easy for me [to work with him],” catcher Sandy Leon said. “Because you can call whatever. You know he’s going to throw a strike. He’s going to throw the pitch wherever you want it thrown. You don’t have to think too much, just have fun in the game and call the right pitches.”
Roark, while acknowledging he saw the scoreboard, insisted he didn’t particularly think about his perfect game while it remained intact. He was too focused on mastering all four of his pitches, especially a two-seam fastball that consistently left batters from both sides of the plate baffled and a changeup that was equally effective against left-handed and right-handed hitters.
When he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, the crowd stood and cheered, understanding Williams was going to let his young hurler go the distance. The fans were on their feet again as Roark strolled to the mound for the top of the ninth. And they let out their biggest roar of the day when he struck out Gyorko on a two-seamer, then clapped his hands together in celebration of the best start of his professional life.
“It feels really good,” Roark said. “It gives me confidence that I can pitch at this level and keep pitching for as long as I can.”
At this point, considering the numbers, his confidence level should be off the charts. And anyone who has watched and wondered whether this guy is the real deal should have their answer by now.
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