Reinvigorated though they are these days, the Washington Nationals are not infallible. The problem that sent them spiraling in the first place cannot be rectified by even the most rousing of team meetings. Since an injury to Stephen Strasburg shook its foundation, their rotation continues to tremble in its wake, and Tanner Roark simply cannot find his balance.
The right-hander struggled again Sunday, needing 102 pitches to crawl through four innings in which he allowed four runs and 15 base runners. The Nationals couldn’t recover from the trouble, falling 10-2 in their series finale with the Marlins and surrendering 22 hits. The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies both lost, too, so they didn’t lose ground in the National League East — though at this point, missed opportunities to gain ground might as well qualify as losing it. They need to seize every chance they can get.
Roark has been so desperate he is altering non-baseball habits in the hopes they will help his pitching. He changed the song played when he begins his warmups. For years, he pitched to Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” but the song betrayed him like the mutton chops he sported in June. He ditched them both, shaving all his hair after allowing nine runs despite feeling strong in his last outing.
Roark entered Sunday with an 8.44 ERA in his last four starts, allowing an average of eight hits in 5⅓ innings per start in that time. He allowed three base runners in the first inning, then three runs on four hits in the second. All the changes didn’t help.
By the third, he began to show frustration. After a leadoff single, Trea Turner could not get a would-be double play ball out of his glove. Roark stomped back to the mound, indignant at getting one out instead of two. He had permitted more hits than he had gotten outs by then.
Over and over he insists he is healthy. Over and over he says his stuff feels good. His velocity is consistent. His stuff is moving, perhaps too much. He watches video, he tinkers, and he hopes. But despite his best efforts, all Roark has done lately is struggle.
When he was at his best, in 2016, Roark conjured soft contact better than all but one starter in the National League. That season, 23.3 percent of the contact made against him met FanGraphs’s requirements for “soft.” Entering Sunday’s start, he had allowed 18.8 percent soft contact and more than 30 percent hard contact — by far a career high.
And while Roark sometimes says he finds solace in getting “singled to death” instead of pummeled with home runs and extra-base hits, those singles have come so frequently lately that they no longer seem to be an inevitable by-product of his pitching style like they did in his better days. He allowed 10 hits and 15 total base runners while getting 12 outs Sunday. His ERA in his last five starts is 8.53. He has allowed 60 base runners in that span while recording 76 total outs.
The Nationals have time to correct this problem, whether by helping Roark fix what ails him — or by dealing for a starter at the trade deadline. Roark and Gio Gonzalez have struggled mightily over the last six weeks, Jeremy Hellickson had been dominant before his disabled list stint, then struggled against illness — and to miss bats — in his last start. Erick Fedde is on the disabled list with shoulder trouble.
Strasburg will not return until after the all-star break, though he will probably help this rotation a great deal. In the meantime, and even after his return, the Nationals front office will need to decide how much it can count on Roark to right himself.
In the meantime, his struggles and those of other starters are draining the life out of the bullpen having to cover their innings. Brandon Kintzler pitched in a 6-2 game Sunday, his fifth outing in seven days since returning from the disabled list. Ryan Madson, also on the disabled list already this year, warmed for the ninth with the Nationals down four. No one was left. Justin Miller struggled, which meant he could not cover more than one inning. They had to pinch-hit for Matt Grace, who might have been able to handle one more. When Madson gave up four more runs and could record only two outs, Mark Reynolds moved to the mound from third base and got the final out of the inning.
The Nationals were not out of the game when Roark departed. This is a sign of their progress this week, as four runs would have felt like a formidable deficit for most of the past month. Instead, by the fourth inning, they had given themselves plenty of time to score so many. Daniel Murphy had singled home a run and hit a sacrifice fly to bring home another, but the Nationals left nine men on base while Roark was in the game.
A statistic like that might have been demoralizing to this team a week ago, but the post-team-meeting Nationals look different. They seem unafraid of missed chances and confident they will make more. This time, though they generated chances, they could not take advantage of them.
Meetings do not rectify everything, though even with Sunday’s loss, it does seem the one they held before this series helped. The Nationals took three of four from a losing team, and in so doing rejoined the ranks of the winning teams, though barely. They have seven games before the all-star break, all against losing teams, and need to continue that trend as much as Roark needs to reverse his.