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Ross has been boss for Nationals

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Ross has been boss for Nationals

One morning in March, Matt Williams and Steve McCatty ventured over to the minor-league complex in Viera, Fla., to watch left-hander Felipe Rivero pitch out of the bullpen. Before Rivero took the mound, though, a young right-hander named Joe Ross pitched.

Ross didn’t make an overwhelming impression on the Nationals manager and pitching coach, but it’s not like either was there looking to be wowed.

“That’s the only time I’d seen him pitch,” Williams said Friday night. “You don’t get a chance to see him from the back side [of the spring training complex]. It’s a long way from our viewing perspective.”

Consider Williams, McCatty and everybody else who has watched Ross through the first three starts of his big-league career very much wowed now. Three starts in, the 22-year-old owns a 2.66 ERA, 23 strikeouts to only two walks in 20 1/3 innings and a couple of wins, including Friday’s 4-1 dismantling of the previously unbeatable Pirates.

Surely, the Nationals have to be surprised by this development.

“I don’t know if we can be surprised,” Williams said. “Because we just didn’t know.”

Fair enough. The Nats’ big-league staff didn’t have enough first-hand knowledge of Ross to formulate an opinion. What they’ve seen now over the last two weeks, though, is enough to convince them they’ve really got something here.

“It’s the impression that we all hoped he would make, and I’m sure he’s proud to have made,” Williams said. “So we’ll see where we go from here.”

Ross’ long-term future looks promising, but his short-term future is very much uncertain. Though he’s pitched more than well enough to merit more big-league starts, the Nationals’ rotation is about to be 100 percent healthy again. Doug Fister returned from a forearm strain Thursday, and Stephen Strasburg is on target to make his return from a strained trapezius muscle early next week, most likely Tuesday against the Braves.

So where does that leave Ross? Probably headed back to the minors, either back from whence he came at Class AA Harrisburg or perhaps at Class AAA Syracuse for the first time in his career.

Whatever ends up happening, wherever he ends up pitching, Ross will take plenty from this first major-league experience and know it’ll come in handy down the road.

“All the things that have helped me successful so far: staying aggressive and really knowing that I can pitch here or have been able to pitch here,” he said. “I guess just keeping that confidence no matter where I’m at. Just keep going with it.”

Ross’ previous outing — eight innings of 2-run ball in Milwaukee when the Nats desperately needed a quality start — felt like a high point for the rookie. But Friday night’s win might well have trumped that. Ross allowed just one run over 7 1/3 innings, striking out 11 while walking only one.

[MORE NATIONALS Nats 4, Pirates 1: Depleted lineup delivers, Ross dominates

He thus became only the third rookie in club history to strike out 10 or more batters in a game, joining John Lannan in 2008 and Strasburg in 2010.

“I always thought of myself as being good enough to be up here,” he said. “I guess that’s kind of a big part of being confident out there on the mound, just thinking I belong. I don’t think I could’ve imagined it going so well so early, but you gotta run with it.”

What has made Ross so successful so far? There’s his consistently well-placed sinkers down in the zone. There’s a devastating slider that was responsible for 10 of his 11 strikeouts on Friday. And there’s also an intangible quality, a desire to learn as much as he can from veteran pitchers on staff, that has particularly impressed teammates.

“He’s always aggressive,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “To me, like Max Scherzer. When he gets a man on base, he’s like twice more aggressive than when he doesn’t have runners on base. I think he’s watching Max Scherzer videos. He looked pretty aggressive with runners on base. That’s what he needs to do.”

Along the way, the Nationals have begun to get to know Ross a little bit. They know his background growing up in Northern California. They know his pedigree, with older brother Tyson a reigning All-Star for the Padres. And they know he isn’t fazed by anything thrown his way.

“He’s got that leadership quality,” said Tyler Moore, who wound up rooming with Ross this spring in Viera. “I feel like he wants the ball, even though he’s young like that. He just goes right after that. He kind of did the same thing to me on the golf course, which wasn’t good. But he’s a good dude, and he’s very mature.”

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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-1, Wednesday to drop their record to 19-30. Here are five observations from the game...

1.  What to say when the only person to trust can’t deliver?

That’s the status for these Washington Nationals, now 11 games under .500 after Sean Doolittle's worst outing since arriving in Washington, sliding further and further away, unable to stumble into wins and only capable of hunting down ways to lose.

A night after curious bullpen usage which delivered yet another wrenching loss, and was followed Wednesday afternoon by a pep-talk focused team meeting, manager Davey Martinez dispatched his knee-quaking posse of relievers in superior fashion.

Joe Ross opened the seventh with an out. Matt Grace followed with two. Six outs to go in a 1-0 game for the league’s worst bullpen.

Kyle Barraclough started the eighth. He struck out J.D. Davis. Adeiny Hechavarria doubled, though the ball should have been caught by Juan Soto. Pete Alonso grounded out. Todd Frazier came to the plate and options arrived. A mound visit was followed by a four-pitch walk to Frazier. Doolittle entered the game to face light-hitting veteran Carlos Gomez. Stomach-churning chaos followed.

Doolittle hit Gomez with his first pitch -- his first beaned batter of the year and first since May 29, 2018. Juan Lagares doubled two pitches later to clear the bases. Wilson Ramos was intentionally walked. Pinch-hitter Rajai Davis hit a three-run homer two pitches into his at-bat.

That was the end for Doolittle, who walked off the mound with a stunned look. The one reliable piece in the league’s worst bullpen had as disastrous a night as possible, flushing Max Scherzer’s start, throwing aside rare quality work from other relievers, sending the Nationals to their fourth consecutive loss in this can’t-get-right season.

What followed was a stupefied clubhouse beginning to process just how dire the situation is on May 22.

Adam Eaton wondered where answers are and said they need to come now.

“We need to do something different sooner rather than later,” Eaton said. “We've talked about this for weeks now. Just haven't been playing good baseball.”

Martinez said he was “shocked” by Doolittle’s off-kilter outing.

“I tell them all the time: This thing will turn around,” Martinez said. “It’s going to turn around. But we have to believe that it will. We have to will it. It’s time that we just believe that we’re good enough to play here, cause we are. And we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay together. Stay strong. Pull for your teammates. And this thing will turn around.”

Doolittle had a hard time wrapping his head around his rare 12-pitch crumbling.

“I don't know, it's tough and it's a tough spot to come in and the context of how our season's going it hurts you even more,” Doolittle said. “To have Max pitch so well tonight and the guys grind it out....shoot I don't know. I'm really frustrated. I'm disgusted with myself and I let the team down. And it hurts.”

Scherzer was stern in his comments about a spiraling season.

“When you face adversity, this is when you reveal yourself,” Scherzer said. “Whether you have the mental fortitude to come back and you can block out all the negativity that's probably going to surround us right now. You've got to come forward to the game with that positive attitude of knowing what you can control and that you have the right mindset that you're going to go out there and compete and compete at 100 percent. You have to think of all the little things you can do.”

There were those two words again: “little things.” They have conspired against the Nationals this year, undermining an-almost $200 million payroll, increasingly putting the manager’s future in jeopardy and ratcheting up calls for sweeping change. There’s been nothing little about them, and nothing the Nationals have figured out on the field or off to stop them from snuffing out the year before the season is even close to half done.

2. Scherzer needed 109 pitches to make it through six innings. The most important of those was his final one. The 11-pitch sixth gave the Nationals three fewer outs to pawn off on the bullpen. Scherzer opened the inning at 98 pitches before briskly working through Todd Frazier, Carlos Gomez and Juan Lagares.

He allowed four hits, struck out nine and walked two. The night drove Scherzer’s ERA down to 3.41. It all mattered little in the end.

“You just take it inning by inning, try to execute pitches,” Scherzer said. “I thought tonight I had a good inning out of the windup, had a good rocker step, and there were some pitches that I threw tonight that I executed well because I was nice and tall throughout my delivery. It kind of let me be able to pick up some consistency kind of early in the game and late in the game. When my delivery is right, and my slot is in the right spot, that’s when I execute all my pitches. So I felt like I was in better position tonight overall than I have been in the past.”

Why was Scherzer back to the mound after 98 pitches in five innings? Because of losses six weeks ago, three weeks ago, last week and this week. A team 10 games under .500 has to squeeze everything it can out of its ace on May 22. Time for a margin of error has eroded. What happened back then (losing series to Miami, for instance) piles up to have a grand influence on later.

3. Grace has been used as a matchup left-hander recently. He’s found that life more appealing.

Grace matched up with Cubs left-hander Anthony Rizzo and recorded an out Sunday. He faced Robinson Cano on Tuesday to pick up a ground out. Wednesday, Grace was brought in to face left-handed pinch-hitter Dominic Smith. Smith grounded out to first. Grace remained in to face Amed Rosario and recorded another ground ball out.

The Nationals are trying to put Grace in spots to get his feet back on the ground after a night as the punching bag at the end of a blowout loss against the Chicago Cubs last Friday (and a down season overall). So far, this role has been better.

4. Remember the extended minor-league assignments for after players were hurt? That’s gone. And the results are not great.

Matt Adams was activated Wednesday. Adrian Sanchez was sent to Double-A Harrisburg to make room on the 25-man roster.

Adams did all his rehabilitation work with the major-league team. He took batting practice on the field and in the batting cages before that. He also took ground balls and infield practice. What he didn’t do was go on a minor-league assignment despite not playing since May 3. The Nationals judged him ready to play because his swing looked in place against a pitching machine.

Wednesday, he made a crucial error in the first inning. Robinson Cano rolled a small ground ball to first, Adams fielded, pivoted and threw toward second base, where the runner on first was heading. The ball never came close to the bag. It went to the outfield instead, which presented the Mets with runners on second and third and one out instead of a runner on first and one out (or a chance at a longshot double play). It, most importantly, cost Scherzer more pitches.

Scherzer pitched his way out of it as he often has this season. He came into the game leading the league in FIP (fielding-independent pitching).

Trea Turner played just two games for Triple-A Potomac after missing seven weeks. Asked how many games he would have preferred to play there, Turner said one. He made two wayward throws his first game back with the Nationals.

So, instantly putting these guys back on the field -- which is every player’s preference and a spot the Nationals’ record has leveraged them into -- is not ideal.

5.  Kyle McGowin will start Friday. His visit to the rotation is expected to be temporary.

McGowin will pitch in Jeremy Hellickson’s spot. He was up to give length in the bullpen. Like Erick Fedde, he’ll be drawn away from the relievers to fill a rotation spot.

McGowin is a sinker-ball pitcher. He made one start at the end of last season. He also is currently suspended by the Pacific Coast League after a substance was found in his glove following an inspection by umpires during his last outing.

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In wake of the Eaton-Frazier dilemma, what are the biggest former teammate beefs in sports?

In wake of the Eaton-Frazier dilemma, what are the biggest former teammate beefs in sports?

Some sports beef just never go away.

On Monday, former Chicago White Sox teammates Adam Eaton and Todd Frazier had to be separated during the third inning of the New York Mets 5-3 victory over the Nationals. The two have never liked each other, and their beef with one another extends as far back as 2016. 

D.C. Sports Live's Julia Donaldson and Travis Thomas discuss what other teammate beefs in recent memory compare with the saga between Eaton and Frazier.

Donaldson initially brought up the beef between former Pittsburgh Steelers teammates Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. The two were very critical of each other vocally to the media throughout their final season together in Pittsburgh. Their relationship reached a point of no repair, as the Steelers shipped their All-Pro receiver to the Oakland Raiders in March.

For Thomas, the first teammate beef that came to mind was the incident between former Nationals teammates Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. It's hard to forget the image of Papelbon choking out Harper for not hustling and running out the bases.

Sticking with baseball, another teammate beef from recent memory is the everlasting dislike between Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. The two were teammates from 1997-2002, and their dislike for another was very much in the public eye. Their hatred for another reached a peak in June 2002, when the two of them had to be separated from another, and Kent publicly said he wanted to leave the team. He was then dealt to Houston in the offseason. 

Other former teammate sports beefs that come to mind are Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal when they were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers. The two stars both wanted to be the clear main No. 1 option, which led the Lakers to trade Shaq to the Miami Heat. The trade ended up working out for both parties, as O'Neal won a championship in Miami, while Bryant led the Lakers to two more championships in 2009 and 2010.

What other teammate sports beefs come to mind?

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