Ross throwing again, targeting late summer return to Nats

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - He won’t be ready to open the year with the Nationals, but Joe Ross has every intention of being a significant contributor to the pitching staff later this season.

“That’s in my head, for sure,” he said. “My arm will dictate that. But that’s how I feel, and I’m looking forward to helping the team in the second half.”

Ross, who had Tommy John surgery on July 19, still has a long way to go to make it back to the mound at Nationals Park. But the last month has seen some significant developments in his recovery.

Restricted from throwing a ball until early January, Ross finally was cleared for that seemingly mundane task. He has since built his strength back up to the point where he can throw from 75 feet on flat ground.

There’s plenty more progression yet to come, from expanding out to long tossing on flat ground to pitching off a mound for the first time to facing live hitters in a simulated game to a minor league rehab assignment. But if all continues to go according to plan, the Nationals expect Ross to reach the final stages of his long road back sometime in July or August.

Ross-Throws-White-Front-Sidebar.jpg“That kind of depends on how the throwing program goes, rehab starts, stuff like that,” he said. “But I’m kind of aiming for July, August. That’ll be a year out from when I had surgery. I guess my arm will dictate that a little more, but that’s my personal goal right now.”

The fall and early winter were tough for Ross, who could only watch as his teammates lost another first round playoff series and then couldn’t begin throwing until after New Year’s Day. But since he has begun playing catch again, his mood has considerably brightened.

“Definitely encouraging,” he said. “Just to be able to play catch again was a big milestone for me, this being my first major injury. There was definitely a lot of (physical therapy), working out, stuff like that. But just to be able to do some baseball activity for once felt pretty good.”

Had he been healthy, Ross probably would’ve been a lock to open the season as the Nationals’ No. 5 starter. Instead, he’ll remain in West Palm Beach when the rest of the teams heads north in late March and watch from afar as A.J. Cole (or perhaps Erick Fedde or Edwin Jackson) takes that final spot in the rotation.

Whether the 24-year-old is deemed the club’s best option to start once he’s healthy later this season remains to be seen. It’ll depend not only on the state of his arm but the performance of those who occupy the No. 5 slot until then.

For now, Ross is focused on the small, incremental steps he continues to take, steps he probably took for granted before he got hurt but now appreciates in a whole new way.

“It feels good,” he said. “Literally to be able to throw 75 feet is encouraging in itself. So I kind of take every day as it is and try not to get too ahead of myself. Because the program itself is long. I’m just excited to be back out there.”

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