The Nationals alluded to the limitations they were ready to apply on starter Joe Ross on Tuesday, as the rookie is already in uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched this season. Tanner Roark was sent to Single-A Potomac to stretch out his arm with the plan to return in September and take Ross' rotation spot. Ross was essentially declared a few starts away from working towards 2016.
If those plans weren't already clear, they certainly are after Thursday night. Ross was brilliant through six innings of work against the Padres, allowing zero earned runs through six innings with just one hit allowed. But despite throwing only 77 pitches, the right-hander was removed before the seventh as manager Matt Williams decided to go to his bullpen much earlier than he normally would.
The Nats were up, but only by two runs in what was a 3-1 game at the time. Yet in came Casey Janssen to pitch the seventh inning.
"The fact that we added one, and we got two in [the fifth inning] and we could get him out of there after the sixth, it was good for him. It’ll just help him stretch through his next starts," Williams explained.
Given the lead and a few fresh arms in the back of his bullpen, Williams saw it as an opportunity to get Ross out of one early.
"Tonight’s an indication that he’s still feeling okay," he said. "If we can limit that and get ourselves in a position to win ballgames, then we want to try to do that. Again, each game will dictate what we can and can’t do."
Ross understands the Nats' intentions for him this season, but was not aware he would be going out so soon on this particular night.
"I wasn't really expecting it. But a call to the bullpen, that's not really my decision. It's fine with me, I guess," he said.
Ross finished with one unearned run, seven strikeouts and two walks in his six innings of work. It was another impressive outing in a growing collection of them for the Nats rookie.
Eight of Ross' 11 career games have been quality starts. In seven of those he has allowed two runs or fewer. That includes his previous start, on Aug. 22 against Milwaukee, when Ross pitched seven innings of one-run ball with zero walks.
Thursday night just happened to come against his former team, a San Diego Padres club that could very much use a 22-year-old standout who holds a 3.24 ERA as a rookie. After all, any team could.
"He's got really good stuff, good composure, doesn't show much emotion on the mound," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He goes out there with a plan and executes. It's been fun to watch. We've enjoyed watching him kind of grow up and become a pitcher at this level. He's got a pretty high ceiling."
Ross hit some bumps along the road earlier in August when he gave up nine earned runs in 8 2/3 total innings across two starts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But he has rebounded convincingly in the time since.
Ross credits commanding his fastball on the inside of the plate, in particular, as something that has made him especially effective as of late.
"It opens up the outside half of the plate for sure. And it really keeps them from leaning out over the plate, which is probably the biggest thing, to keep them honest. It opens up the outside corner for the bullpen later in the game. That's kind of something I've been trying to work on the past couple games," he said.
The fastball also helped set up his slider on Thursday night, he explained:
"It felt pretty good. I think for the first couple I felt like it snapped out of my fingers. It was a good pitch throughout the night, especially later on the second and third time through the lineup."
Ross is now at 142 2/3 innings on the season, which is over 20 innings more than he's ever pitched in a given year. Last season he threw 121 2/3 innings in the minors and the season before he finished with 122 1/3.
Exactly how far the Nats will push Ross before Roark takes his place has not been outlined publicly. But Ross will be ready for whatever they decide to do.
"I guess I'll go out and keep throwing until they tell me that I'm done," he said.