If Ross Detwiler's career with the Nationals has been about anything, it's been about the process of searching for a comfort zone. He's been through several mechanical refinements in his career, with coaches first telling him to straighten out his across-the-body delivery, then telling him to do what feels comfortable, only to work on streamlining his mechanics again late last season.
And this year, after Detwiler opened some eyes in spring training with stuff that scouts said was the best they'd seen out of him, he went to Triple-A Syracuse, seemingly starting the process all over again.
He allowed a combined 20 runs in his first four starts, none of which lasted longer than six innings. The breaking point was a May 24 game against Rochester, where Detwiler was gone after giving up 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings.
"Not many balls were hit hard at all, and it was a lot of weak base hits," Detwiler said. "I was like, 'My luck is terrible here.' That's when (manager Randy Knorr and pitching coach Greg Booker) pulled me aside and said, 'It's not luck. You just need to have that extra little something (on your sinker).'"
It was clear on Tuesday night that if Detwiler is going to do anything in the majors this year, it's going to be with his sinker. He threw it 54 times in 76 pitches against the Cubs on Tuesday, touching 95 mph with it and sitting around 92-93 mph. And when the Cubs chased Detwiler from the game after 5 1/3 innings, it was on a pair of hits against offspeed pitches.
He allowed two runs, getting his third major league win and impressing manager Davey Johnson, who said he was only expecting to get five innings out of Detwiler. The sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft could get another start on Sunday if the Nationals decide to rest Jordan Zimmermann, and it sounds like Johnson wants Detwiler to stay in Washington for a while in the second half, as a long reliever and an emergency starter.
The left-hander had hip surgery last spring that limited him to 18 games between the majors and minors last year. And coming back from that operation - which was on the plant leg of his delivery - Detwiler said he was't throwing his sinker as hard as he needed to.
"There's a fine line there, between throwing it too soft and throwing it too hard," Detwiler said. "I think I've finally figured out what the fine line is, and I'm able to throw that more for strikes."
Detwiler has gone through more fits and starts in his development than any pitcher taken sixth overall should, but the first five innings on Tuesday were a reminder of what he's capable of doing when he's on. His sharp curveball sits around 80 mph, and can be Detwiler's best pitch when he's throwing it well. And his changeup has helped him hold right-handers to a lower batting average (.279) than left-handers have against him (.296).
But like several young Nationals pitchers before him, Detwiler has had to go through the process of finding a comfort zone with his sinker. He throws it harder than a left-hander like John Lannan, and if he can ever repeat it in the majors, he's got a chance to succeed consistently.
On Tuesday, it looked like Detwiler understood that.