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.
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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.”