Nats’ Roark strikes out 11, looks like his old self in win
NATIONALS 4, DIAMONDBACKS 3
phoenix — The Washington Nationals have played just fine this month, well enough to move their division lead into double digits, well enough to lend credibility to the belief that it will not shrink much from there. But Saturday night’s 4-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks highlighted the portion of their circumstances lost in the day-to-day minutia.
This team, the one that is doing just fine and has won eight of its past 11 games, has a chance to be far better in the next two months than it was in the last two. Reinforcements are probably on the way.
One of them arrived in force Saturday evening, when Tanner Roark worked seven masterful innings in which he allowed two runs and struck out 11 batters — his third career game with double-digit strikeouts and first this season. Roark had not been the same this season as last, but he has now allowed two earned runs in his past 13 innings.
Roark had a lead before he took the brittle Chase Field mound Saturday. Bryce Harper gave it to him, obliterating a two-strike offering from Diamondbacks starter Anthony Banda, a lefty who was making his major league debut.
Like he did at times before the all-star break, Harper did not lift his foot in that familiar leg kick when he took the swing. He lifted his back heel, replaced it and hit a baseball over the pool beyond the wall in right-center.
The Diamondbacks tied the game against Roark in the first, though they nearly didn’t. Chris Iannetta’s RBI double was a few inches away from being a harmless foul ball.
But other than that double, Roark looked like the near-allstar he was in 2016 — if not better. His secondary stuff broke and landed for strikes. He threw his change-up wherever he needed it. His curveball bit and got swings and misses. His slider enticed Diamondbacks hitters to reach out of the zone. Roark had not struck out eight men in a game since late May. He struck out that many in the first five innings Saturday evening.
Roark never could say exactly what ailed him early this season. At times, when he could not click
his mechanics into place, he seemed frustrated to the point of anger and called himself “pathetic.” While the results did not show much improvement in June, his post-start demeanor did, most noticeably after he lasted just three innings in St. Louis and seemed disappointed but unconcerned.
Since then, Roark has insisted his stuff felt good, that he could put his pitches where he wanted. The 30-year-old right-hander’s stuff is good but not able to withstand missed spots like harder throwers can. His struggles boiled down to poor command, pitches not executed — all those afflictions that are symptoms, not causes. Whatever the root cause of Roark’s struggles, he seemed to have eradicated the problem over the all-star break.
Until the top of the sixth inning, he needed every ounce of command he could find, because the rookie Banda was unfazed by Harper’s homer and had held the Nationals to one.
Chris Heisey wasn’t supposed to be in the Nationals’ lineup Saturday. But Ryan Raburn’s grandfather died, and the veteran was, as his manager put it, “shook up.” Raburn will depart the team for bereavement leave Sunday, and catcher Pedro Severino will take his roster spot. Heisey took Raburn’s place in the lineup Saturday night, alerted a few hours before the game that he would start in left field.
In the sixth, Heisey pulled a pitch into the left field corner and did not stop running as Chris Hermann pursued it and then struggled to retrieve it. As a result, Heisey had a chance for third, and he slid in just before Jake Lamb’s tag with a one-out triple.
At that point, Banda could have walked Harper, but he pitched to him instead. Harper hit a double the opposite way, his second hit and RBI of the game, which already marked his 15th consecutive game with a hit — a career high.
Ryan Zimmerman, who has been struggling, followed that with his second hit of the night, a double to center — the 361st two-base hit of his career, which pushed him past Tim Wallach for most in Expos/Nationals history. Anthony Rendon drove home a run with an infield single to push the Nationals’ lead to three.
That middle of the order squandered a chance to add to the lead in the seventh, when Jorge De La Rosa struck out Harper and Zimmerman with the bases loaded. At times this season, missed opportunities to take out insurance policies felt like bad omens, foretelling the loss of a late-game lead that could have been bigger.
But Ryan Madson worked around a one-out double to throw a scoreless eighth for the second straight night. Sean Doolittle relieved him and found adventure for the second time in two Nationals outings when a leadoff walk and a Rendon error put the tying run aboard with nobody out. But Doolittle got out of it and earned his second save in those two chances.
The Nationals did not have late-inning options like Doolittle and Madson as they climbed 20 games over .500 initially and built this lead in the National League East — a fact that can be looked at in one of two ways. The first would be to think of what might have been. The second would be to consider what could be.
Chris Heisey bats in the seventh inning for the Nationals. He went 1 for 4 with a triple and a walk.