Sunday, the Nats received the start that they wanted and needed. Tanner Roark gave them seven shutout innings, a high-leverage performance in a game in which neither the Nationals nor the Brewers scored until the seventh. The eventual 3-2 Washington victory salvaged the final game of the series against Milwaukee.
It may have been ironic that Roark was taking the start that was originally scheduled for Stephen Strasburg. But after a tough week for the Nats this performance was more comforting than anything else.
Strasburg was placed on the disabled list Sunday, after a recurrence of the upper back strain that had caused him to miss a start against the Dodgers. Roark, who had last pitched on Tuesday, was able to fill in Sunday on regular rest.
But, before the decision on Strasburg was made, Roark had thrown a bullpen session Saturday. So getting seven innings from him Sunday was an even larger deal than usual.
"Pretty heroic, from my point of view," said reliever Shawn Kelley of Roark's performance. Kelley recorded a four-out save Sunday.
Roark worked his seven innings, giving up seven hits, walking only one and striking out seven. He needed only 95 pitches to get through the start. He was pitching well enough in the seventh that it appeared he could continue. But given the circumstances, Nationals manager Dusty Baker decided that Roark had done enough.
"Tanner was outstanding," Baker said. "We decided he had enough, because he wasn't scheduled to pitch today and he had thrown 38 pitches in the bullpen [Saturday]. That's why we took him out of the game.
"This guy's a battler. We asked Tanner (on Saturday): 'Hey, man, you think you can go tomorrow?' And he said: 'Oh yeah.' Now he never turns down the ball. But the look on his face and the inflection of his voice told us that he wasn't jiving. I said: 'This is no time for heroes now. But you tell us if you can go.' And go he did."
Roark modestly declined to see this start as something apart from the norm.
"I felt good enough to go out there and do it," Roark said. "My warm-up pitches kind of stunk. But once I got out there and got loose it felt fine, it felt good. Everything still felt great throughout the entire game."
This was an important game for the Nationals. There was the matter of the losing streak hanging over the team like a storm cloud. And then, in-game, a scoreless tie through six innings turned up the tension even more. But Roark was unfazed by the pressure.
"You can't worry about it," he said. "You just have to have faith and trust that the bullpen will come in and shut it down. You've got to trust. We're a family and you've got to trust in every single person in here."
Roark is 7-5 with a 2.96 ERA. He attributes his recent success to strike-throwing. He walked Milwaukee shortstop Jonathan Villar leading off the game, but that was the last walk he allowed.
Roark's game plan is straightforward: "Getting ahead of guys, not walking guys, limit the walks, eliminate the free passes, just keep going after guys."
The Brewers knew that the switch from Strasburg to Roark did not mean an easier day at the ballpark.
"This isn't a break, as far as I'm concerned," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said before the game of the move to Roark. "This guy's pretty good. He's a challenge. He's under the radar because [Max] Scherzer and Strasburg are big names, but this guy's a good starting pitcher."
Roark was good and beyond. He was good enough to end the Nationals' skid. The Nats, still atop the National League East, now go back to Washington for a 10-game home stand feeling considerably better about their direction.