LOS ANGELES—Tanner Roark has made a career of exceeding expectations.
The righthander was a 25th-round pick in the 2008 draft and didn't make his major league debut until he was 26 years old. He was traded by the team that drafted him—the Rangers—just two years after they picked him and never once ranked among an organization's Top 30 prospects in five minor league seasons.
Now, he's a coming off a Top 10 Cy Young Award finish with the Nationals and is in position to exceed expectations once more, and buoy Team USA with him.
Roark was announced as USA's starting pitcher for its World Baseball Classic semifinal against Japan, giving the 30-year-old Illinois product a prime chance to pitch himself into international lore.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a big game for myself and for the rest of the guys in the clubhouse," Roark said. “So we’re just going to go out there and do our thing, play together, have fun, and give it our all."
Team USA will face Japan at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. With a victory the U.S. would advance to the WBC championship game for the first time.
Knowing those are the stakes, Roark didn't hesitate when asked if it would be the biggest start of his career.
“So far, yes, I’d say so, with the single-elimination and everything," he said. “Just go out there and leave it all out on the field."
Roark had to wait for this opportunity. He pitched just once in Team USA's first six games, going 1.1 innings in relief in a first-round loss to the Dominican Republic.
“He’s gotten the short end of the stick a little bit so far, to be honest with you, the way things worked out," manager Jim Leyland said. “But he deserves this start. There is no doubt in my mind about it. I feel great about it. He’s been a trooper. He signed up for this event, and I’m pitching him. I feel very, very comfortable about it."
Roark said feels equally comfortable despite the layoff. After patiently waiting his turn, he will have the chance of a lifetime.
“Everything feels great, body feels great," Roark said. “Yeah, it’s been a little bit since I’ve been in there facing live hitters. But the key is to pitch to my strength, and that is throw strikes and get outs. I mean, as a starter, that’s what you’re supposed to do. So I’m going to go out there and give it my all for as long as I can until they take me out."
SUGANO GETS THE NOD
Japan will counter with veteran righthander Tomoyuki Sugano against Team USA. Sugano, 27, has been the ace of the storied Yomiuri Giants in recent years, going 44-28, 2.34 in four seasons. He has struggled in the Classic however, going 0-0, 5.40 in two starts with 11 hits and eight runs allowed in 8.1 innings.
“I trust him," Japan manager Hiroki Kukobo said. “Among the pitchers, he’s the best, so we’re entrusting him."
Sugano sits in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball and complements his four-pitch arsenal with strong command, which led to 1.8 walks per nine innings last season with Yomiuri.
“Tomorrow, for sure we’ll win and advance to the final," Sugano said. “That’s how I feel."
OLDER, WISER NETHERLANDS
The Netherlands is in a similar position as it was four years ago, when it reached the WBC semifinals but fell to the undefeated Dominican Republic. The Dutch once again face an undefeated opponent in the semifinals in Puerto Rico tonight.
While their current situation is similar on the surface, manager Hensley Meulens sees a key difference with this year's squad.
“You know, I think these guys are four years older, more experience, a lot of success in their Major League careers the last few years. And that’s a lot to be said about that," Meulens said.
There is truth to Meulens' words. Xander Bogaerts had yet to play above Double-A at the time of the 2013 WBC. Same for Jonathan Schoop. Didi Gregorius and Jurickson Profar had played eight and nine major league games, respectively, in their careers. Andrelton Simmons was the most experienced of the core group with 49 games played in the majors.
Now, they are all key everyday players for playoff contenders, established in their careers and confident in their abilities.
“The last time I played, I was so young," Bogaerts said. “I was so nervous throughout this tournament. I haven’t been that nervous compared to the previous time I was here."
The Dutch will play down one key man as Gregorius was removed from the roster because of a right shoulder injury. Gregorius was 8-for-23 with eight RBIs in six games in the WBC. The Yankees shortstop’s status for Opening Day is in question.