In the four-plus years since he was drafted sixth overall by the Nationals, Ross Detwiler has only shown the kind of stuff to warrant that high draft status on a handful of occasions, and rarely in a full game. He finally did it on Wednesday night.
The pieces were there - a sinker that touched 95 mph with a sharp downward tilt, and a big-breaking curveball that sat around 80 mph and fell a foot. Detwiler put himself in some tough spots, yes, but he looked like more than just another ground-ball specialist left-hander.
"Not too many times do you look up there and see a lefty throwing 94-96 (mph)," outfielder Jayson Werth said.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, they had just a few too many youthful mistakes; Detwiler threw a four-seam fastball in a 3-1 count to Joey Votto, instead of trying to get last year's NL MVP to roll over a curveball or a sinker in the first inning. Votto crushed it into the Reds' bullpen. And in the ninth inning, when the Nationals had the bases loaded with one out, Wilson Ramos jumped on the first pitch he saw from Francisco Cordero, grounding into a game-ending double play.
In between those miscues were eight innings of mastery from Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto, the NL's ERA leader who took a five-hit shutout into the ninth inning. Against a pitcher who'd been that good, the Nationals' mistakes were a little too much, and they lost 2-1 to Cincinnati.
Ryan Zimmerman homered off Cueto on the only pitch he threw in the ninth inning, but the Nationals couldn't bring in another run after that. Nor could they score before it, despite having runners on second and third with none out in the fourth; in that situation, Werth got jammed by a 96-mph sinker inside.
The night, though, was mostly about Detwiler. He had just the sixth quality start of his career, and matched his career high of 103 pitches, which he'd initially set against the Reds in 2009. There were things to improve - Detwiler said he needs to get better at throwing his sinker inside on righties, rather than throwing a four-seamer in like he did on the Votto homer - but he had what might have been the most impressive start of his career.
"I thought I threw a lot of sinkers - I kept them down, and I think that's the biggest thing," Detwiler said. "It was good to be able to go out there and just try to keep us in the game as long as I could."
Many of his losses, though, have been of the hard-luck variety; he is now 3-12 in his career, and is 1-3 this year, despite posting a 2.87 ERA as a starter and a reliever. On Wednesday night, he had one of the best nights of his short career when the Nationals made just enough mistakes to squander the little margin for error Cueto gave them.
"We battled to get to (the ninth inning)," manager Davey Johnson said. "A couple times, even Jayson Werth went after a fastball that was off the plate, in - he usually looks for the ball away. And then we swing at a slider down and away that (Ramos) grounds out on. The pitcher's in a jam. I want to be aggressive, but we need to be smart and aggressive, looking for balls in our area. We haven't been consistent doing that all year. We need to get better at that."