By Nick Shepkowski-
(CBS) A 3:05 p.m. start time with NL East-leading Washington in town means Wrigley Field will welcome a fairly large number of fans today, but it won’t be just Cubs fans or vacationing Nationals supporters making noise.
That’s because Wilmington High School product Tanner Roark will take the mound for the Nationals, and for him getting to pitch in Wrigley Field is nothing short of a dream come true.
“It’s surreal,” Roark said Thursday in anticipation. “I used to come here all the time growing up, watching games with buddies. And now to get the chance to start here, what else could you ask for?”
Roark will have plenty of hometown support, as more than 50 members of his family and group of friends have planned to make the 65-mile ride from Wilmington north to Wrigley Field.
“Probably on party buses and wearing purple,” Roark added.
The 27-year-old Roark doesn’t strike a ton of batters out (6.9 per nine innings), but nearly a year after getting called up, he ranks in the top 20 of all of baseball this season with a dazzling 2.79 ERA and is also the current owner of the 10th-best pitcher WAR in the National League. In a game that has become increasingly about matchups and advanced scouting, Roark has found success in being a bit of a throwback.
“I don’t like to look over scouting reports that much,” Roark said. “I’ll study them for a bit before a game, but for me it’s about watching how a hitter reacts to what you’re throwing that’s most important.”
That same mentality played a part in Roark being the ace of an Illinois high school baseball dynasty a decade ago, as he helped lead Wilmington to two state championships and another top three-finish between 2003 and 2005.
Roark then landed a scholarship to the University of Illinois before eventually becoming a 25th-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 2008. A deadline deal in 2010 sent him to the Nationals in exchange for Christian Guzman, and three years later Roark made his big league debut.
He hasn’t looked back.
“This whole ride has been a lot of fun,” Roark said. “I mean, it wasn’t that long ago I was four years old and this dream was first beginning.”
Along with collegues Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister, Roark has helped the Nationals compile baseball’s best team ERA at 3.04 this season, and they are much of the reason Washington remains atop the NL East despite a lengthy Bryce Harper injury.
But as the All-Star break nears and the playoff push begins, Roark isn’t about to let the moment get too big for him.
“You have to stay humble each day no matter what you did the night before,” Roark said. “If not, this is a league that will swallow you whole.”
Roark has shown he’s plenty capable of producing in the big leagues — and for him, he’s living out that dream that began long ago.
Nick Shepkowski is the associate producer of McNeil and Spiegel on 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @Shep670.