Ross impresses in long-awaited Nationals season debut

ATLANTA - In his perfect world, Joe Ross would have spent opening day at Nationals Park, not NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse. But Ross didn’t take his season-opening demotion to Triple-A personally, recognizing that the Nationals weren’t sending him down for performance reasons, but rather because it made the most sense for a club that didn’t need a full-time fifth starter until now.

Wasn’t that still difficult to accept for a guy whose last start came in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium?

Joe-Ross-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpg“Not really,” Ross insisted. “You just have to take the right mental approach. I guess they made it clear that, hopefully, I’d be back. So it was easier for me to take that and take a positive with me, not get down on myself.”

The Nationals indeed made sure Ross understood he wouldn’t be staying in Syracuse for long. He made only two starts before he was likely to be promoted.

And when he did finally make his major league 2017 debut Wednesday night, Ross reminded everyone that he deserves to be pitching at this level.

Despite a shaky first inning that included a couple of runs and a high pitch count, Ross found his groove and wound up tossing seven strong innings to earn the win in the Nationals’ 14-4 thumping of the Braves.

That first frame was not particularly encouraging for Ross, who retired only one of the first five batters he faced, giving up three singles and a walk, with two of those Atlanta hitters coming around to score. And after serving up a towering homer to Freddie Freeman a few innings later, Ross found himself with an elevated pitch count of 57 after only three innings.

How, then, did he turn that into a seven-inning, 100-pitch start in which he retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced?

“I just tried to keep my breaking ball down,” he said. “The first few innings, I hung a few sliders that they hit early in the count. So they kind of took advantage of that. But after that, I just tried to work quick, get groundball outs, work on my sinker. And it kind of paid off.”

It certainly did. Ross got better as the evening progressed, so much so that Dusty Baker let him continue taking the mound, probably longer than the manager envisioned at the outset of the game.

“He battled,” Baker said. “At first it didn’t look like he was going to start off too well.”

Ross was so effective - and the Nationals’ lineup was so productive - he wound up taking five at-bats in the game. (We’ll ignore the part where he didn’t reach base once on a night his teammates collected 20 hits.)

When’s the last time he got five at-bats in a single ballgame?

“Probably high school, to be honest with you,” he said. “Oh-for-5, so that was tough, too. I’ll probably have some early BP tomorrow.”

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