ATLANTA - There may be no bigger "X" factor for the Nationals heading into the postseason than Joe Ross, who could wind up being anything from the club's No. 3 starter in October to an option out of the bullpen to not even making the roster at all.
The Nationals will use the next two weeks to decide how, or if, Ross will figure into the equation, and that process will begin Sunday when the right-hander makes his first appearance in a big league game in 2 1/2 months.
Manager Dusty Baker announced Ross as his starter for the Nationals' series finale against the Braves, the first of potentially three starts he could make down the stretch to make his case for a spot in the postseason rotation.
Ross, who hasn't thrown more than 60 pitches in any of his three minor league rehab starts or the simulated game he participated in Monday, will be on a fairly limited pitch count for this game. Baker said he might throw only three innings, treating this as a pseudo-spring training game.
The number of pitches Ross throws, though, is less significant than the mere fact he'll be throwing at all in a big league game for the first time since July 2, after which shoulder inflammation landed him on the disabled list.
"Let's see how his arm feels," Baker said. "Then we'll increase the workload if we can, or maybe see how he does out of the pen. It's just important to us that he's on the mound in a game. I think that ... before we start wondering what do we expect from him, we're just happy that he's on the mound."
The Nationals have long believed Ross could be a key cog in their postseason rotation. His midsummer injury, and the long rehab process that followed, forced them to alter their expectations. But now with Stephen Strasburg out with an elbow strain and Gio Gonzalez battling inconsistencies all season, there may still be an opportunity for Ross to hold a significant October role behind projected No. 1 and No. 2 starters Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark.
"I was talking to him - this was like in April and May, when he was on a roll - I said, 'Hey man, I want you to do so well that you'd be in consideration for the third spot in the playoffs,'" Baker said. "But we didn't know that Tanner was going to do what he's done, and we didn't know that we were going to lose Stras, either. So I was just trying to give him some motivation. That was a while ago. ... I mean, I talk to guys in the league, and they said that he has as nasty stuff as any young right-hander that they had faced."
In order to activate Ross off the 60-day DL, the Nationals will have to remove somebody else from their 40-man roster. The only players on that roster who aren't currently in the big leagues or on the 15-day DL are infielder Chris Bostick and catcher Spencer Kieboom. Reliever Sammy Solis, attempting to return from shoulder inflammation, is the only player on the 15-day DL. Transferring him to the 60-day DL would leave him ineligible to pitch until mid-October.
The Nationals also are seeing encouraging signs from Strasburg, 10 days removed from his last appearance, when he departed with what later was diagnosed as a strained flexor mass in his elbow. The right-hander played some light catch for about five minutes this morning at Turner Field, a small-but-important first step in his attempt to return at some point during the postseason.
"They told me yesterday that he was beginning exercises," Baker said. "And he was coming along fine, as far as I know."