ATLANTA - For 2 1/2 months, Joe Ross has watched the rest of the Nationals from afar, wanting to play a role in their march toward a division title but unable to contribute. Inflammation in his right shoulder lingered much longer than anyone initially expected when he was placed on the disabled list July 3.
At long last, Ross will get his chance to contribute to the cause. This afternoon, the young right-hander returns to the mound, getting the start for the Nationals in their series finale against the Braves.
And that has Ross smiling again after a difficult summer.
"Pretty excited," he said. "But it's just another start. I can't look at it any differently. Just excited to be out there, be part of the team and feel like I'm back on the mound competing. That's what I've been missing: being out there competing with the team. I'm excited to be back."
Ross experienced his share of ups and downs during his recovery from what appeared to be a relatively minor ailment at the time. He made two rehab starts in late July and likely needed only one more before rejoining the rotation.
But lingering shoulder stiffness forced the Nationals to pull Ross back from his rehab assignment, and it was another month before he was back on the mound in a game again. This time he made three rehab starts, reporting no problems, putting him on the verge of a return.
The Nationals would have liked for Ross to make one final rehab start, but with the minor league season over, they instead had him pitch a simulated game against teammates on Monday. He threw roughly 60 pitches during that outing and has been pronounced ready to return.
Because he still hasn't built his pitch count all the way back yet, Ross will be limited today. Manager Dusty Baker suggested he may be held to only three innings, with somebody else from the pitching staff (perhaps Mat Latos, Lucas Giolito or Reynaldo Lopez) replacing him out of the bullpen.
But at this point, the club needs to get Ross into game action. He will have probably three starts to build himself up before the end of the regular season. At the end of all that, the Nationals will decide how (or if) he fits into their postseason rotation.
"I wouldn't say I look at it like a challenge," Ross said. "But if I can step up and fill the spot, fill the role, that's what I'm going to try to do. But that's up to them. We only have a couple games left ... but if I can fill that spot, that'd be great. That's an added bonus to getting back just in time for, hopefully, the playoffs."