Nationals Features: For Glory
Roark was one of several Nationals to take part in the 2017 World Baseball Classic
Just moments into the semifinal of the World Baseball Classic, Tanner Roark found himself working out of a jam. Facing an undefeated Team Japan squad and uncharacteristically rainy conditions on March 21 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Roark's second pitch had slipped and hit Japan's leadoff hitter, Tetsuto Yamada.
But like he's done in Washington for the past four seasons, Roark buckled down, focused his energy and escaped the frame unscathed. Mixing pitches, speeds and locations, the Nationals right-hander tossed four scoreless innings while allowing just two hits and a walk.
"The key tonight, without question, was Tanner Roark," said Team USA manager Jim Leyland following the semifinal win. "There's no question about that. We needed some innings from him and he gave us those innings."
Roark's performance gave the United States an emotional lift in its World Baseball Classic title run, as the U.S. defeated Japan, 2-1, and followed that up with an 8-0 blanking of Team Puerto Rico in the title game the following night. It was Team USA's first Classic championship in four tries, helping to push the event to record attendance and television ratings.
Following the semifinal game in an on-field interview with MLB Network reporter Jon Paul Morosi, the usually understated Wilmington, Ill., native said he was just doing his job to help his team win.
"That's what starters are supposed to do," said Roark. "Go out there and put up zeroes and get the hitters back in the dugout as fast as possible."
Roark later noted that the rainy conditions made his start difficult, but he tried to ignore the elements. Following the game, he credited the pro-Team USA crowds that filled the California ballparks during the final two rounds of the three-week baseball showcase.
"The fans are definitely into it," Roark said. "You heard it tonight and in San Diego. They were loud, and we feed off that. We love a loud crowd chanting 'U-S-A.' It gets your adrenaline pumping. It gets you going."
Roark, who also pitched in relief in Team USA's second game of the tournament against the Dominican Republic in Miami, was one of six players in Major League camp with the Nationals who earned spots on their respective national teams. Roark was joined on the U.S. squad by second baseman Daniel Murphy, while left-hander Enny Romero pitched for Team Dominican Republic, relievers Oliver Perez and Rafael Martin represented Team Mexico, and backstop Jhonatan Solano caught for Team Colombia.
Additionally, Nationals farmhands R.C. Orlan and Nick Rickles (Israel), Randolph Oduber (Netherlands), and Adrian Sanchez (Colombia) participated in the event.
The preseason tournament format gave participants a taste of postseason baseball at a time of year usually reserved for more relaxed Spring Training contests -- a challenging situation for players, coaching staffs and organizations alike. While Roark and Murphy are stars in the big leagues for the Nationals, playing time was difficult to come by on a team loaded with talent.
Prior to the opening game of the Classic, Murphy cited the immense amount of star power.
"I'm truly humbled to even be able to be asked to do something like this, to represent our country," Murphy said in a television interview. "And then even, as much as that, to look and see up and down the lineup and kind of pitching and offensive players we have on the team … these are some of the best players in baseball."
Ultimately, Murphy and Roark marched on to win the championship. Pérez, Martín and Solano's teams were eliminated in the first round, while Romero played a big role in Team Dominican Republic's success. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound southpaw held his own alongside decorated big league relievers like Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, Alex Colome and Fernando Rodney, retiring all eight batters he faced and earning a victory while striking out three batters in 2 2/3 perfect innings of work.
Using a devastating fastball that clocked as high as 100.1 mph according to Statcast™, Romero turned heads and positioned himself to break camp with the Nationals.
As for Roark, Murphy, Team USA and the future of the World Baseball Classic, the success of the tournament in its fourth year (2006, '09, '13 and '17) boosted the prospects of the Classic gaining even more traction as a major event on the sports calendar. With raucous crowds providing a World Cup-style atmosphere and players enjoying big moments with even bigger celebrations, the energy and international flavor of the event provided flair typically unseen during the Major League Baseball season.
Within Team USA, Roark said the players in the clubhouse formed a bond that will last beyond the three weeks they trained and played together. The U.S. camaraderie was evident throughout the team's eight games, something that could entice more American players to sign up to wear the red, white and blue in four years.
"We're always having fun in the clubhouse no matter what," Roark said. "They keep it loose. It's like an All-Star team. To get all these [guys] together that know the game and want to play for their country, it's great to be a part of."