The Nationals really needed a win Saturday in Milwaukee. So, naturally, they turned to none other than Bryce Harper to lead the way at the plate. And, not so naturally, Joe Ross on the mound.
I mean, talk about an odd couple to carry you to victory. Harper, of course, we have come to expect to do these kinds of things (ie. reach base five times). But who could have imagined the member of the Nats' vaunted rotation that would come up biggest when it was needed most would be Ross, the 22-year-old right-hander making his second career start?
Both performances were worth examining in greater detail, so let's get right to it...
ROSS JUST DID WHAT SCHERZER, ZIMMERMANN, GONZALEZ AND ROARK HAVE NOT THE LAST 10 DAYS
What exactly did Ross do? He pitched seven innings. Actually, he pitched eight, joining Scherzer and Zimmermann as the only two Nationals starters to go that deep so far this season.
But the completion of seven innings was newsworthy enough, because no member of the Nats rotation had been able to do that in any of the club's last 10 games.
Ross was able to do it for one key reason: He threw strikes. A ton of them. Like, 77 of his 108 total pitches. Those 77 strikes tied for the fourth-most thrown by any Nationals starter this year, bested only by Scherzer (who has done it three times, though each time out of at least 110 pitches).
In fact, Ross did something no pitcher in Nationals history has ever done. He faced 51 total batters before issuing the first walk of his career, a new club record.
Ross has good stuff (his fastball averaged 92.7 mph Saturday and topped out at 94.5 mph). He throws strikes. He changes speeds. And he hasn't appeared to be fazed by anything he's faced so far since his surprise promotion from Class AA Harrisburg.
Ross may have been unknown to all but the most ardent Nationals fans, but he did come with a pedigree. He was the Padres' first-round pick in the 2011 draft. His brother, Tyson, was an All-Star last season for San Diego. And now he could throw a bit of a wrench into the Nats' pitching plans.
The assumption all along was that Ross would hold this rotation spot only until Doug Fister was ready to come off the disabled list. Well, it looks like Fister is ready to do just that after he threw six scoreless innings in a rehab start for Harrisburg on Friday night. But are the Nats really going to send Ross back down after a dominant performance like this?
There is another scenario that could unfold. Tanner Roark could potentially move back to the bullpen, a boost to the area of the Nationals' roster that most needs a boost right now, and that would allow Ross to remain in the rotation a bit longer. He'd still wind up out of a job once Stephen Strasburg returns from the DL (which is likely to happen in the next two weeks). But he would have another couple of opportunities to start at the big-league level and prove that his performance Saturday was no fluke.
HARPER IS AN EVEN BETTER HITTER IN JUNE THAN HE WAS IN MAY
On the surface, that sounds impossible to believe, given the video-game-like numbers he posted in May to earn NL Player of the Month honors. But it's true.
After hitting .360 with a .495 on-base percentage, .884 slugging percentage, 13 homers and 28 RBI in 26 games in May, Harper is now hitting .415 with a .520 on-base percentage, .732 slugging percentage, three homes and eight RBI through 12 games in June.
No, he's not hitting for as much power. But he's hitting for a much higher average and reaching base at a staggering 52 percent clip.
Those numbers were bolstered by Saturday's game, in which Harper went 3-for-3 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and two RBI. That's five plate appearances and five times successfully reaching base.
Technically, Harper didn't actually get to reach base in his final plate appearance. After taking a fastball just above his left knee in the top of the ninth, he was removed from the game. The preliminary report was that Harper was hit in the quadriceps muscle, not the knee itself, which would be a break for him and the club. Though until he shows up to the park Sunday, we won't know for sure how severe (if at all) this injury is.
Regardless, Harper's season just continues to wow everyone. He's now hitting .343 with 21 homers, 51 RBI, a .479 on-base percentage and 1.204 OPS through 62 team games (61 individual games).
How impressive is that? Well, only eight players in MLB history have ever finished a season with an OPS of at least 1.204: Barry Bonds (four times), Babe Ruth (seven times), Ted Williams (twice), Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Mark McGwire, Jimmy Foxx and Frank Thomas. Only 12 players have finished a season with an on-base percentage of at least .479: Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Hornsby, Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, Edgar Martinez, Norm Cash, Arky Vaughn, Harry Heilmann and Ty Cobb.