VIERA, Fla. - Ross Detwiler turned 25 today, and celebrated by striking out five batters in three innings of his third spring training appearance, which continued to build the case the former first-rounder could be the surprise of Nationals camp. The occasion was slightly better than the last time Detwiler pitched on his birthday: As a freshman at Missouri State, he got hit in the left hand with a line drive. It ended his season.
"This is a little better," he deadpanned.
It's probably also better than Detwiler's 24th birthday; one year ago, he was limping around Space Coast Stadium on crutches, recovering from right hip surgery that had already derailed a season where the former first-round pick was expecting to break out.
Instead, he spent the first three months of the year trying to make his way back to the majors, and when he finally got there, Detwiler's effectiveness was limited by lingering effects of the surgery.
His mechanics have been a moving target for Detwiler throughout his career, but he knew last winter that something needed to change. He unwound his delivery, stepping more directly toward the plate and taking away most of the across-the-body motion that he'd used most of his career, except for a year when the Nationals tried to straighten him out.
He made the change in part to lessen the load on his hip. But the change might have also revived his career.
Detwiler's reformed mechanics helped him excel again on Sunday; he was able to bring his fastball inside more effectively, and his curveball continued to show the big break it's had most of the spring. A National League scout clocked Detwiler's fastball between 89 and 93 mph, which is harder than he was throwing most of last year. The scout said Detwiler was cutting his fastball between 85 and 87 mph, throwing an 81-85 mph changeup and sitting between 76 and 77 mph with his curve.
"I've had him for four years," the scout said, "and this is the best I've ever seen him."
His delivery has played no small part in that. Detwiler is able to keep his weight on his back leg and push toward the plate, adding bite to his velocity and creating more separation between that pitch and his changeup. He had hitters diving out in front of pitches on Sunday - "I don't think I got an awkward swing last year; I got a lot of contact last year," he said - and his ability to pitch inside has opened up the outer half of the plate again for him.
Whether it puts Detwiler in the Nationals' rotation remains to be seen. He's in a crowded race for the final rotation spot, and though he's been one of the team's most impressive pitchers in camp so far, the Nationals will still look at four or five other candidates for the job.
"There's no reason to be conscious of (the competition)," he said. "If I go out there and think about it the whole time and something bad happens, then I'm out of the mix? Whatever. I feel like I need to just go out there, and if I prove myself there and make their decision harder, that's my job."
He's doing that job right now.