Desperate times call for desperate measures and with two starters on the disabled list and mixed results from their usual spot-starters, the Nationals called on prospect Joe Ross from Double-A Harrisburg to fill in on Saturday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs.
It was an unexpected move that caught Ross himself by surprise. He was called in to Harrisburg manager Brian Daubach's office after a Senators game several days prior and at first thought he was in trouble. Daubach and Harrisburg pitching coach Chris Michalak initially kept straight faces, knowing Ross would have no reason to suspect such a life-changing moment was awaiting him.
And once they told him, Ross took some time to process the news. He was going to make his major league debut at just 22 years old with an organization that acquired him less than six months before.
"It was kind of crazy," Ross recalled. "I was in shock for a good while. I didn't know what to say. I was happy, but I didn't smile or do anything. I was kind of stuck. Then after I called my parents and stuff, it really set in and hit me. I was coming up to D.C."
Ross' parents made the trip to Washington for the unusually early 12:05 p.m. start on Saturday. So did his older brother, Tyson Ross, who pitches for the San Diego Padres.
His brother's presence was supposed to be a surprise before reports on social media spoiled those plans.
"Social media kind of ruined that one. But it was still a surprise to me," the younger Ross said. "It was awesome. I'm glad my parents could come, that was amazing. [Tyson] surprised me, coming out. I didn't know until just before the game. That was kind of an extra incentive, knowing he's there watching me in the stands. It was fun."
Ross admitted he was nervous when he first took the mound in front of the 38,214 in attendance at Nationals Park. That sure beats the crowds he was used to pitching in front of in the minor leagues.
"A lot of eyes. A lot of eyes in the stands. Nothing compares to this, Double-A or whatever level you're at. It kind of gave me a little extra adrenaline and then the first-pitch strike really helped me out," he said.
The first-pitch strike was against Dexter Fowler, whom Ross struck out. The right-hander set down the first nine batters he faced and was perfect through three innings. Then the Cubs saw him for the second time, however, and finally found some luck. They got a run in the fourth on a Kris Bryant infield single. They scored two more off Ross in the fifth inning on hits by Fowler and Anthony Rizzo.
Ross took the first loss of his MLB career, but his three runs across five total innings were plenty to give the Nationals a chance to win. It was their offense that failed to carry the load in a 4-2 defeat, their seventh in their last nine games.
The loss was a tough one for the Nats, as they nearly mounted a comeback in the ninth inning after Bryce Harper led off with a home run. But it didn't spoil the day for Ross, who impressed his teammates.
"He’s great," Harper said of Ross, who is the first teammate younger than him he's ever had at the major league level.
"He’s got a lot of good stuff. His slider is really good. His change-up is dirty. If he throws like that every single day, he’s going to be very tough to face. Especially the older he gets the more reps he gets out there and more comfortable he’s going to get. It’s a lot of fun to watch. If he’s anything like his older brother, it’s going to be pretty electric, pretty lights out. I think as an organization we’re excited, as a team we’re excited. Hopefully he can make another start up here."
"He looked great. I think a lot of the guys in here are excited about him. He's a stud," Ian Desmond said. "He looked like he had done it before. He looked like he had a brother that was really good at pitching."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon also saw similarities between Joe and Tyson:
"Quick arm. Velocity was there. Really, an effective slider, not unlike his brother. They're pretty similar with the slider. Great athlete... He's going to be very good for them. Coming out of Double-A, he represented himself really, really well."
Ross doesn't know what the future holds for him. If Stephen Strasburg or Doug Fister return soon from the DL, there's no telling when Ross will be back in the big leagues. He may have to wait until 2016.
Ross isn't worried about that right now, he is just enjoying the moment after his successful big league debut.
"I'm just glad to be up here and make the start today. I'm not sure exactly what's going on after this. But hopefully I get to stick around for a little bit," he said.