The diminished velocity was noticeable from the outset, with the radar gun at Nationals Park consistently flashing “89” or “88” on Joe Ross’ fastballs, with only an occasional “90” or “91” sprinkled in there.
But because Ross coasted through his first two innings against the Braves with little trouble, there wasn’t much reason for those inside the home dugout to start asking questions.
It was the top of the third when the Nationals began to have some concerns about Ross’ health, when he twice got ahead of hitters 0-2 in the count only to walk each, his command way off at that point. That preceded a grooved, 89-mph fastball to Freddie Freeman that predictably was launched over the wall in left-center for a three-run homer.
“Especially when he walked those two guys in front of Freddie,” manager Dusty Baker said when asked he felt something might be wrong with Ross. “Those balls weren’t even close. Usually, that’s not Joe.”
Even so, Ross had pitched earlier this season with diminished velocity. Nothing much ever came of it, and he proceeded to get his fastball back and enjoy some sustained success over the last month. Which left the Nationals comfortable sending him back to the mound for the top of the fourth this afternoon.
Ross’ radar readings during a seven-pitch encounter with Nick Markakis: a 78-mph slider, then pitches of 88, 87, 86, 88, 87 and 87 mph, which all registered on MLB’s computer tracking program as changeups but were in fact fastballs.
And that’s when pitching coach Mike Maddux decided to make his way to the mound, with head athletic trainer Paul Lessard joining him in a conference that included catcher Matt Wieters.
“I didn’t really think much of it the inning before, but he had some pitches that just didn’t have the finish on it that they did before,” Wieters said. “And then he came out to the first hitter the next inning, and he just didn’t have the life on it that he had before in the game. So I just wanted to go out there and make sure we don’t do any damage to something that hopefully we can get fixed quick and get him back out there.”
“We saw his velocity was like 89, 88,” Baker said. “And then Mike saw something and we decided to take Joe out.”
Indeed, after a brief chat, Maddux hollered to the dugout to send word to the bullpen that Matt Grace’s services were needed. Ross walked off the mound alongside Lessard as the ballpark held its collective breath wondering what was going on with the young right-hander.
The initial answer: “triceps tenderness” according to Baker. Ross left the ballpark to get an MRI, the results of which are not yet known.
Ross was unavailable to meet with reporters after the game, and Maddux had already departed like other uniformed personnel trying to catch flights home for the All-Star break. So the question will linger until a formal update is provided, either sometime in the next four days or not until the club reconvenes in Cincinnati for Friday’s second half opener.
Baker did say he didn’t believe the triceps issue was a lingering problem for Ross, who threw a career-high 114 pitches Tuesday against the Mets and didn’t throw a typical between-starts bullpen session just in case he was needed in relief before today.
“To the best of my knowledge, it just popped up today,” Baker said.
The Nationals head into the break with mostly positive vibes. They’re 52-36, a full 9 1/2 games up in the National League East. But they are dealing with a recent spate of injuries, most notably to regulars Jayson Werth, Trea Turner and Michael A. Taylor, plus relievers Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley.
Stephen Strasburg took a comebacker off his hip Saturday and was pulled after three innings, but Baker said today everything checked out fine and Strasburg is good to pitch in the All-Star Game and later this week in Cincinnati.
Will Ross wind up as fortunate as his rotation mate and be good to go when the second half commences? Or will he join those others who have been lost in the last month?
The Nationals have a few days now to figure that out.