<
>

Rookie Roark keeps Nationals in hunt

In 1980, the Phillies called up an obscure minor leaguer named Marty Bystrom in September. He wasn't a big prospect -- in fact, he'd signed as an undrafted free agent -- and had just OK numbers in Triple-A, but the Phillies needed a starter. Bystrom made five starts, threw a shutout his first outing, allowed just six runs all told, won all five games and was a huge factor as the Phillies beat out the Expos by one game to win the NL East.

Whenever a late-season call-up does something big in a playoff race, I still think of Marty Bystrom, especially since the Phillies would go on to win their first World Series title that October.

Tanner Roark isn't quite a September call-up since he pitched out of the bullpen for the Washington Nationals in August, winning four games in middle relief. He made his first major league start on Sept. 7 and beat the Marlins. He started against the Mets on Sept. 12 and won again. Against the Braves on Tuesday, he pitched the best game of his life, throwing seven scoreless innings and allowing just two hits as the Nationals won 4-0 -- scoring three runs in the eighth to break it open -- to complete the doubleheader sweep and keep alive this late-season surge.

Roark was probably even less of a prospect than Bystrom. He was part of the Cristian Guzman trade with the Rangers in 2010 -- you remember that one, right? -- but didn't rank in Baseball America's top 30 Nationals prospects before the season. He's a 26-year-old organizational player who had gone 6-17 with a 4.39 ERA for Syracuse in 2012.

But he has better stuff than you'd expect from a guy not ranked in the top 30 of a farm system not generally considered to be very deep. He's averaged 92.6 mph on his fastball in the big leagues, reaching 95. He has a curveball, slider and changeup and throws strikes. Against the Braves, he threw 67 of 101 pitches for strikes, relying heavily on his fastball: 63 fastballs, 71 percent for strikes. Still, back in April at Syracuse he got pounded in his third outing of the season, giving up 12 hits and 10 runs. He was demoted to the bullpen, where he spent the next two months.

Now he's 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA in the major leagues. This is baseball.

"He really put it together this year, focus-wise, and was prepared for the game and not giving in at all this year," Tony Beasley, his Triple-A manager, told MLB.com last week. "It was just a different mindset to him. He was really locked in with his outings. He didn't shy away from contact. He had no fear of hitters. It was just like he was going to get the job done every time he went out there. There was a different kind of confidence behind him, and it resulted in success."

While Roark has provided a huge lift, Nationals fans have to be wondering: Where has this team been all season? Is this run coming too late? The Reds pummeled the Astros, so the Nats remain 4.5 games behind Cincinnati and 6 behind Pittsburgh. If they go 9-2 over their final 11 games, they need the Reds to go 4-6 over the final 10 just to force a tie. A season-ending road trip to St. Louis and Arizona won't be easy.

We can't write the Nationals off just yet, just like they didn't write off Roark. But I think their run is going to fall a couple games short.