It has happened quietly, and it hasn’t garnered the kind of attention afforded other members of the Nationals rotation ... or the members of their lineup who seem to explode for double-digit runs every time he takes the mound.
But one of the most encouraging developments of the last month, from the Nationals’ perspective, has been the re-emergence of Joe Ross as something more than a No. 5 starter. It’s still a work-in-progress, and the right-hander still needs to show this over a longer stretch to prove it has lasting power, but it could pay off nicely for the Nats when it’s all said and done.
Ross took another step toward proving that today when he tossed seven innings of two-run ball during the Nationals’ latest trouncing of the Mets, this one by a final count of 11-4. The fact his teammates once again provided more than 10 runs of support (his season average) drew most of the attention, but the fact he churned out one of his best starts of the season is worthy of attention as well.
Ross’ third pitch of the day - a slider to José Reyes - landed in the second deck down the right field line. His 56th pitch - a fastball to René Rivera - cleared the center field wall. Otherwise, the right-hander excelled on a hot, muggy Independence Day at the park.
“Rossy comes out in the first inning, I’m sure he was disappointed in giving up an 0-2 home run right there, and it’s 1-0,” said Daniel Murphy, who terrorized the Mets yet again with four hits and five RBIs. “I was looking up at the scoreboard 2 1/2 hours later, he’d gone seven innings on two runs. It was a great job.”
And it was merely the continuation of a surprising midseason turnaround for Ross, who not long ago looked like a major problem for the Nationals.
After a ragged start in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., on June 3, Ross’ ERA stood at an unsightly 7.34. He was averaging five innings per outing. In six starts since, his ERA is 2.95. He is averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.
The two biggest changes Ross has made? For one, he is throwing his changeup more regularly and more effectively. For another, he has taken manager Dusty Baker’s advice and put renewed emphasis on his between-starts workout regimen, allowing him to stay stronger deeper into starts.
Let’s begin with the changeup, a vital third pitch Ross has been able to deploy in addition to his bread-and-butter fastball-slider combo. He threw it only 3.7 percent of the time in his first seven starts this season, hardly enough to make opposing hitters pause to consider it.
But in his last five starts, Ross has thrown the changeup 12.5 percent of the time. He even upped the ante today to 15 percent (17 of his 114 total pitches).
“I’ve been overall feeling it, but the changeup has probably helped me a lot,” he said. “I haven’t thrown it that much to righties, but it really helps out against lefties and definitely has helped limit my pitch count from being able to throw it first or second pitch and get those early swings, poor contact or a popup. You can tell they’re sitting, waiting to jump on a fastball, and then it’s just enough velocity difference to pay off and get an early out.”
To wit: Ross actually fired off three consecutive changeups to the final batter he faced today, lefty slugger Lucas Duda. His last one struck Duda out, earning a standing ovation from the crowd of 37,120 as he departed the field.
“How many people pick up a pitch in the middle of the season, and have the confidence enough to throw it?” Baker said. “Most of the time, that confidence comes over the winter and spring training.”
Ross has been forced to learn a lot on the fly this season, one in which he twice was demoted to Triple-A and at times looked in danger of losing his permanent spot in the rotation. In addition to the improved changeup, he also has improved his training methods, taking a cue from Max Scherzer and focusing more on running between starts, which has helped him pitch deeper in games and not limp to the finish line.
“Trying to get my overall stamina up, because, you know, third time through the lineup you sometimes get a little tired later in the games, and I think it’s been helping,” he said. “Recently I’ve been feeling pretty good and feel like I’m staying stronger into the sixth, seventh inning. Which is obviously going to help close out a good start.”
It’s all part of the maturation of a young pitcher. And we tend to forget sometimes that Ross still is young, a 24-year-old who totaled only 299 2/3 minor league innings before his first big league debut.
He has learned how to be a major league pitcher, how not to simply rely on his stuff, or even how to avoid following the same pitching patterns to hitters multiple times within a game. It’s the kind of stuff that only comes over time. And perhaps Ross’ time is coming at last.
“I feel like it kind of takes the experience of going through the lineup and making good pitches and getting beat on mistakes,” he said. “Or sometimes you go to the well too often, try to go the same sequence, and they’re making adjustments, too. It’s a game of cat and mouse. But I’ve been feeling better about that the last couple games, and I think it’s paying off.”