The emergence of rookie starter Joe Ross has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Nationals in a year characterized by the unforeseen. What has become a breakout season for the young right-hander, however, could be nearing its inevitable end.
The Nationals have alluded to an unspecified innings limit for Ross, whom they acquired in an offseason trade with the San Diego Padres. The 22-year-old pitcher struggled again on Sunday - albeit in an 8-4 sweep-clinching win over the Braves - and manager Matt Williams spoke afterwards about signs of fatigue.
"Today starting in the third inning the fastball was down to 90," he said. "The fact that the fastball came down is a sign that he's tired."
Against the Braves he lasted only 4 1/3 innings with four earned runs on five hits, three walks and zero strikeouts. It was his 13th start of the season. In his first seven outings he had 47 strikeouts to only four walks. But in his last six games he has struck out 21 and walked 16.
That could be due to a decrease in the speed on his fastball, Ross himself admits.
"I think with velocity down a little bit, it kind of affects the sharpness of my slider and changeup. All of those things kind of play a role in that," he explained. "I can tell when it's not jumping out of my hand. I'm just trying to execute pitches. When I try and overcompensate I can get myself in trouble."
Ross is now at 149 2/3 innings on the season. His previous career-high was 122 1/3, set in 2013. Last season he topped out at 121 2/3 innings pitched.
With Stephen Strasburg on his way back and Tanner Roark already reinstalled in the rotation, the Nats may call it a year for Ross. He has not been the same pitcher in recent weeks, particularly in his last two outings where he has walked nine batters combined.
Williams said the Nationals could make a decision very soon on the matter.
"That's a big discussion for us. We have to understand where he's at and the territory he's in and what options we have going forward. We have a few days to make those, certainly. We'll move forward on it when we can," he said.
Ross knows his velocity is down and that the results have not been there, but he's not jumping to any conclusions. He will continue to operate business-as-usual until he is told otherwise. His next turn is Sept. 12 at the Miami Marlins.
"It's late in the season so that could be a factor. I feel normal," he said. "I feel fine. I'm ready to go pitch my next outing whenever my name is called. I guess we'll see what happens."