As Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty has worked with Ross Detwiler over the years, trying to straighten out his delivery to the plate like a piece of warped steel, he's kept something in the back of his head that longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told him long ago: Never give up on a left-hander.
And with Detwiler, the Nationals haven't given up, no matter how many iterations of his delivery he went through or how many times he looked just short of harnessing the stuff that made him the No. 6 pick in the 2007 draft. They've believed that eventually, Detwiler would lock in his mechanics, and if he did, they'd have one of the rarest commodities in baseball: a lefty with a live fastball.
After three years of development - and a 2010 season mostly lost to injury - Detwiler might finally be zeroing in on that. He has a 2.78 ERA in four start since joining the rotation last month, and his win over the Diamondbacks on Monday night might have been his best start yet.
Detwiler allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings, and would have taken a shutout into the seventh if he hadn't grooved a fastball to Henry Blanco in the seventh inning. The rest of the night, he was in command, once again driving his sinker down in the strike zone and ratcheting it up to 94 mph.
Seventy-four of Detwiler's 92 pitches were fastballs, and when he threw his curveball and changeup, he did so effectively, getting a strikeout each with his off-speed pitches.
"The stuff is there," McCatty said. "That's part of the learning process - getting out there and pitching. You're starting to see really good results, and your confidence gets going, instead of, 'I'm just getting here. I've pitched in a few games. I've had some decent ones and a lot of bad ones.' You start to say, 'I'm here for a reason. I can pitch in the big leagues.'"
He's making a strong case to be in the Nationals' rotation permanently. Detwiler turned some heads with a strong spring - scouts said it was the best they'd seen him throw since coming to the Nationals -but the pitch that caught attention was his curveball more than his fastball. When he went to Triple-A Syracuse at the beginning of the year, he struggled, giving up 10.1 hits per nine innings and posting a 4.53 ERA.
The Nationals brought Detwiler up in July, though, to pitch out of the bullpen, and in that time, he's honed his sinker. He's throwing it harder than he ever has in the majors, pitching on more of a downward plane than he has in the past and spotting it with more conviction.
Pitching behind Chien-Ming Wang in the rotation has also helped him; Detwiler charts pitches on the days Wang starts, and he's been able to watch how confidently the right-hander commands his sinker.
"It's huge for me, to be able to see that and to see him work," Detwiler said. "It's funny, because every hitter knows what's coming, but he still gets ground ball outs. He drives the ball down through the strike zone. He doesn't just try to throw it for strikes - he throws it down through the catcher."
If there's been a noticeable difference in Detwiler in this stint in the majors, it's been his ability to do the same thing with his sinker; he's getting groundouts to a greater degree than he has in the majors before, and the confidence he's had with the sinker has kept him from hanging breaking balls that have burned him in the past.
He's by no means a finished product. McCatty is still working with Detwiler to take some velocity off his curveball, trying to get him to throw it with more rotation and bounce it in the dirt to get hitters to chase it. He also needs to get better at throwing his sinker inside to right-handers; he's given up homers in his last two starts on inside four-seam fastballs to righties, and Detwiler said he didn't try to work on spotting the sinker inside on Monday.
But the 25-year-old is finally delivering on his considerable talent, just in time to make a strong case that he's here to stay.
"Left-handers sometimes take a little longer," manager Davey Johnson said. "His command up here has been a lot better than it was in Syracuse. He's been more around the plate, more aggressive, (making) more quality pitches. You can compare the numbers he's had up here, whether out of the 'pen or starting, and they're actually better than they were in Syracuse. He's coming along."