VIERA, Fla. -- Tanner Roark still gets a gleam in his eyes and a smile on his face when he recalls his major league debut last season with the Washington Nationals. After turning heads with Triple-A Syracuse, where then-manager Tony Beasley was raving about Roark long before many Nats fans knew his name, Roark was called up to Washington.
A former University of Illinois standout, Roark made his big league debut Aug. 7, 2013, with two scoreless innings out of the bullpen against the Atlanta Braves.
"Being on the field for the first time for the first inning [of work], I had never been in front of that many people," Roark, 27, said. "It is a feeling [now] every time I step on the field. That is a good thing, right?
"It was definitely surreal, and it still is surreal. You see these guys on TV and then you are one of those guys on TV. That has always been my dream."
Roark, a right-hander from Wilmington, Ill., didn't stop with that debut. He was 7-1 with an ERA of 1.51 during 14 games, with four starts for the Nationals. Now he is in the mix for the No. 5 spot in the 2014 starting rotation, along with veteran lefty Ross Detwiler and right-hander Taylor Jordan, who also made his major league debut in 2013.
The lockers of Jordan and Detwiler are a few feet away from that of Roark in the clubhouse. Roark said players understood the competitive nature of the game.
"Everyone knows what they are fighting for and what they are up against," Roark said. "It is good team competition."
If Roark does not make the Opening Day roster, either as a starter or reliever, there is a chance for him to help the big club later during the year.
"Injuries happen," he said. "Stuff happens. It is always good to have a backup plan. We have a solid squad here with 40-plus guys."
The Rangers drafted Roark out of Illinois during the 25th round in 2008. Texas traded Roark to Washington during the 2010 season, and Nationals infielder Cristian Guzman went to the Rangers.
This past winter, Roark lived in the Harrisburg, Pa., area with his wife and daughter. His wife is from Maryland, and they met when Roark was pitching for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League while in the Washington farm system.
They headed to Florida in early February and are not sure where they will live at the end of spring training, Roark said. That most likely depends on whether Roark makes the Opening Day roster of the Nationals or is sent, perhaps, to Triple-A Syracuse.
"We are kind of nomadic," he said with a smile.
Roark made his spring debut with two innings on the road against the Yankees March 3 and did not allow any runs during a 4-2 loss.
"I felt good," he said. "I was trying to locate the fastball. It is good to come out there and compete."
Washington manager Matt Williams said he liked what he had seen of Roark's command of the zone.
"He was great," Williams said. "We are going to lengthen him out as much as possible."
When Doug Fister was held out of a start because of elbow inflammation March 7, Roark got the start against the Houston Astros at Space Coast Stadium. Roark allowed one run and four hits with three strikeouts in 2.2 innings as Washington won, 8-5, and Bryce Harper hit his first home run of the spring. Roark has an ERA of 1.93 this spring.