WASHINGTON -- Joe Ross didn’t want to talk. He learned a few minutes prior he was going back to Triple-A Fresno for the third time and just shook his head when asked if he had a minute while sitting at his locker.
That was June 23, a day after Ross allowed four earned runs during a one-inning relief appearance versus Atlanta. His ERA was 11.05. And, Ross was irritated.
His situation since spring had been in flux. Jeremy Hellickson’s major-league deal all but assured Hellickson the fifth spot in the rotation. Which meant the Nationals tried to figure out what to do with Ross and Erick Fedde. Bullpen? Minor leagues as backup starters? Both?
The choice, eventually, was the latter. Fedde and Ross went between roles and locales without knowing how long they would stay in either. Injuries in the rotation finally clarified their situation, and they have suddenly grown. Gone -- for now -- are episodes of crumbling with runners on base or decline in tempo. In is the ability to remain in control when the game is speeding up. An example from Tuesday night’s 3-1 Nationals win: leadoff double in the fourth inning against Ross. Joey Votto ahead in the count 2-0, Ross comes back to strike him out. A fly out to left, a fly out to right, inning over.
“Maturity,” Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing for them is the tempo. When things start going bad, you have to find a way to slow the game down. And they're both doing that. I saw that with Fedde [Monday]. I think he's gathered himself, Joe did the same thing. He threw bad pitches and got his stuff back, gathered himself and got right back in the at-bat.
“For me, that's signs of maturity. Moving forward we need both of these guys. They're doing well. They're pitching well. With Joe, when I was on the other side, watching Joe pitch, he's throwing the ball, right now, about as good as I've seen him from the other side. His two-seamer is sinking really well. He throws his four-seamer up and away with two strikes, which is unbelievable. His curveball has been very, very effective, and he can throw it for a strike now. he gets a lot of chase. You want to call it a slider? I think of it more as a cutter, about 89-90. It makes him more effective as well.”
Ross attributes the late movement on his two-seamer to a slight mechanical change of raising his knee higher during his delivery. Tuesday, he threw 46 sinkers which resulted in just four swinging strikes. However, the 10 of those sinkers put in play traveled just an average of 88.4 mph.
The recent changes and growth in effectiveness led to 17 ⅓ consecutive scoreless innings for Ross -- the most this season by a Nationals pitcher. In his last 18 innings, Ross has allowed one earned run. Fedde is on a more modest run: two earned runs in his last 12 innings.
But, both have done it while Max Scherzer tries to fix his back issues and the Nationals elbow their way through a taut wild-card race. Washington is 1 ½ games in front for the lead wild-card spot. Scherzer hasn’t won a game since July 6. Fedde and Ross are a combined 4-0 in August, improving when needed most.
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