When Stan Kasten was the Washington Nationals' president, before the former Atlanta Braves president left the nation's capital and became president and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he shared an anecdote with reporters about a phone call from retired, legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox, who had called him after watching Ross Detwiler pitch. "This is unbelieveable, this is the exact way we did it." Cox told Kasten, referring to the rotation Atlanta assembled featuring Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, which helped the Braves dominate the National League for more than a decade starting in the early 1990s.
Kasten was sure to preface the anecdote by saying, "I wouldn't compare anyone here to them," but the trio of first- and second-round picks the Nationals had in the majors at that point - Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler - reminded Cox of what he'd been given to work with two decades earlier in Atlanta. Two winters after the phone call, Strasburg and Zimmermann had already been through Tommy John surgery and rehab. Detwiler had hip surgery and was slow to develop.
In December 2011, the Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A's along with minor league pitcher Robert Gilliam in exchange for four prospects.
Late in the 2011 campaign, Nationals manager Davey Johnson had transitioned Detwiler from the bullpen to the rotation, with Tom Gorzelanny switching from starter to long reliever. The signing of Edwin Jackson gave the Nats four starters and a last-minute decision in spring training landed Johnson's project the fifth spot. Detwiler opened the season as a part of the rotation for the first time and responded well to the vote of confidence, fighting off challenges from the likes of Chien-Ming Wang to establish himself as part of the Nationals' starting corps.
Detwiler was 10-7 in 2012 with a 3.40 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 52 walks (2.85 BB/9) and 105 strikeouts(5.75 K/9) in a career-high 164 1/3 innings. His breakout campaign culminated with a Game 4 start in the National League Division Series with St. Louis that saw the 26-year-old lefty give up just three hits and one earned run in the elimination game which was decided by Jayson Werth's walk-off home run.
Johnson was effusive in his praise of Detwiler's effort after his postseason debut. "I tell you," the skipper said, "I was so proud of (Detwiler). He pitched. He didn't start the game overthrowing. He pitched. ... In crucial spots, he used his changeup for a good strike. Used his curveball. Went in and out. He was just totally in control against a good-hitting ballclub. It was great. Fun watching."
While the talk in the press before the start focused on how the Nationals were stuck with Detwiler when they should have had Strasburg available, Werth spoke to reporters after the Game 4 win about the team having confidence in Detwiler going into the biggest game in D.C. in decades. "Yeah, media can say whatever they want," Werth said. "We know the type of guy Ross is and what he brings to the team. I said yesterday, I felt good about where we were at. I felt like Ross would handle his business."
Detwiler did. He never got another chance to pitch in 2012, though.
This should have been Detwiler's big year. After the breakout 2012 season, he was expected to start alongside Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and newly signed right-hander Dan Haren in 2013. Detwiler made eight starts in which he was 2-4 with a 2.76 ERA in 45 2/3 innings over which opposing hitters had a .306/.349/.437 line before an oblique issue surfaced and forced him to the disabled list.
He returned to the rotation a month later and made five starts in which he he had a 6.31 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. On July 7, Detwiler was placed on the DL for the second time this season. Johnson hoped his left-hander would return after the All-Star break, but was disappointed when Detwiler didn't. A setback in a bullpen session meant he'd miss more time. "I thought coming out of the break (Detwiler) would be in the rotation," Johnson told reporters at the time, "This is kind of a tough pill to swallow."
He hasn't started since. This past week, Detwiler, who was eventually diagnosed with a disc problem that his manager said was causing a pinched nerve and back spasms, finally threw off a mound again. Detwiler threw a second bullpen session in Citi Field in New York, where the Nationals swept a four-game series with the Mets. The 27-year-old lefty may get an opportunity to throw out of the bullpen before the season ends.
So far in 2013, the 2007 first-round pick is 2-7 in 13 starts and 71 1/3 innings pitched, over which he has a 4.04 ERA, a 3.67 FIP, 14 walks (1.77 BB/9) and 39 strikeouts (4.92 K/9). It's hard to consider it anything but a lost season for at this point. He could help the Nationals in a relief role down the stretch, but he'll have something to prove again if he's part of Washington's rotation in 2014.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for
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