CHICAGO — Gray has settled into Chicago sky after two pristine days since the Washington Nationals arrived in the Midwest on Sunday.
Tuesday’s Game 4 of the best-of-five National League Division Series between the Nationals and Chicago Cubs was locked into a 4:38 p.m Central, 5:38 p.m. Eastern, first pitch even before the Los Angeles Dodgers finished their sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night. Major League Baseball was fearful of the rain in the evening forecast, so it moved the game into the early television slot.
The Nationals, who trail 2-1 after Anthony Rizzo’s bloop hit Monday night, are on the edge of being eliminated in the first round for the fourth time in six years.
Trying to prevent that will be Tanner Roark, the Nationals’ No. 4 starter.
Roark grew up in Wilmington, Illinois, a bit south of Chicago proper. He was a Cubs fans. So were his mom and siblings. His father, Toby, was the holdout. Toby rooted for the White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.
“Growing up, yeah, there was always some trash-talking in the house between us and my dad,” Tanner Roark said Monday. “You know, and throughout the town, I feel like there’s more Cubs fans than there are White Sox fans.”
Roark expects a group of Roark fans to be in Wrigley Field on Tuesday. He has friends and family coming, but not the swarm of 300 or so who chanted his name when he made his first appearance at Wrigley Field in 2014.
More important will be his ability to keep the Nationals’ season afloat. Roark’s second half of the season was better than the first, but September was his worst portion during the improved months. He has allowed earned runs in 13 consecutive starts. In September, his ERA was 4.40.
He made a solid early-August start in Wrigley. Roark allowed two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out four and walked three. Javier Baez hit a home run off him.
The Cubs will counter with 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, who could be making his final start for Chicago. Arrieta, like Max Scherzer, also has a hamstring problem that he will need to navigate. If Arrieta was not injured, he likely would have already pitched in the series. Instead, he gets Game 4.
Arrieta finished the season with a 3.53 ERA. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon all have had moderate success against him in small sample sizes.
“You know, these guys are good at exposing mistakes,” Arrieta said of the Nationals’ lineup. “If you leave pitches over too much of the plate elevated, they are going to do damage against you. So you know, doing the best I can to speed them up, slow them down, keep them off balance, and trying to get them to chase some things out of the strike zone when I am ahead.”
Roark will be relying on his two-seam fastball. Despite Kris Bryant going 5-for-11 in his career against Roark, the Cubs are hitting just .215 against him as a group (.177 outside of Bryant). That’s a swath of good news for the Nationals to grab onto. They tried to make light of the situation a bit Monday night when Ryan Zimmerman joked that they have won two games in a row before, and doing so would not be a record. That doesn’t change the fact that one more loss only piles on the failures of recent postseasons. Roark will try to prevent that and force a Game 5 in Washington on Thursday night.
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