WASHINGTON -- Much of the attention in the Nationals' starting rotation is commanded by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and with good reason considering they are two of the best pitchers in baseball. But in some ways their presence has allowed Tanner Roark to fly under the radar as perhaps the club's steadiest starter this year and one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball.
He delivered his best outing of the season Saturday night at Nationals Park, inducing weak contact and pitching deep into the game -- a common occurrence for him -- to help guide the Nationals to a 6-0 victory against the Pirates. This time he delivered eight masterful innings of scoreless ball and nearly finished off a shutout, before being pulled after allowing two batters to reach in the ninth.
Roark scattered five hits, all singles to the opposite field, and issued one walk to go along with five strikeouts. He had a chance to finish what would have been the second shutout of his career, but he allowed a leadoff single to John Jaso and hit Starling Marte with a pitch, forcing Nationals manager Dusty Baker to turn the game over to reliever Blake Treinen.
Still, Roark completed at least six innings for the 16th time in his 19 starts and has lasted at least seven in five consecutive starts. His 12 starts of at least seven innings are the most among Nationals pitchers.
"Saves me in a bunch of ways," Baker said before to the game. "It saves me from using a pinch-hitter, saves me from using two or three guys out of my bullpen, and then not only that, it helps me from the next day and possibly the next day if you don't have off-days. That's big for me."
Roark has thrown 124 2/3 innings this season, the fourth most in the National League behind aces such as Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Scherzer. His ERA dropped to 2.82, the 11th-best mark in the NL.
"It feels good. I pride myself on that, going as long as I can and as hard as I can," Roark said. "That's what starting pitchers are supposed to do. I try to do that and not try to nibble or try to trick hitters. Just go after them, be aggressive and get strike one."
That's how he attacked the Pirates on Saturday night, forcing them into the weak contact that has made him so successful this season. Roark entered the game with the lowest hard-hit rate in the Majors at 22.7 percent, according to Fangraphs.com. He credited that to being able to keep hitters off balance when he has command of all four pitches, especially when he is able to throw his two-seamer effectively.
"That's probably something that, I don't know if he did it on purpose or not, but a lot of us fouled a lot of those pitches off expecting it to be a four-seamer," Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison said. "I think I fouled one of those off, off my hands, and I was like, 'Man, he two-seamed it.'"
That Roark had to wait out a 77-minute rain delay only seems customary nowadays, dating back to his first start of the season where he pitched and returned to the mound after an 85-minute rain delay. He has started on short notice, sat through at least four rain delays and even came out of the bullpen to throw 2 1/3 scoreless innings in his last game before the All-Star break.
It is as if nothing seems to faze Roark after going through a 2015 season where he bounced back and forth from reliever to starter and never really settled into a routine.
"He's hungry. He's like a warrior," Baker said. "He doesn't run from anybody. He's like the epitome of a competitor. He wanted this spot and he got it, and he doesn't plan on giving it up because he already had it once and he won 15. And then he had to take a back seat. Now he's got another chance. How many guys get a second chance with the same organization?
"If you want to tackle this guy, you better bring a lunch, dinner, and some snacks."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.