Ross sharp in his longest outing of spring as Nats win 6-5 over Mets

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Right-hander Joe Ross looked comfortable and his pitches were sharp in his first start of spring since returning from Tommy John surgery.

Ross allowed a two-run shot to Michael Conforto, but finished three innings looking strong, mixing four pitches and hitting mid-90s with his fastball. Ross fired 61 pitches, 44 for strikes, scattering four hits, allowing two runs with no walks and striking out three. It was his longest outing of spring training in his sixth overall appearance.

The Nationals came back to win the split-squad affair 6-5, highlighted by a four-run eighth inning. Spencer Kieboom went 2-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs.

“Yeah, I definitely felt good,” Ross said. “(It was) the longest I’ve thrown innings-wise and pitch count so far in spring. It’s good to get some innings in and face some good batters in the lineup, obviously. It’s good to be back there in the starting role, for sure.”

And was it a big deal to return to starting a game after five relief appearances this spring?

“Yeah, it always means something to get out there and have a start,” Ross said. “But after last year and coming back for the last four weeks of the season, it was good to be back, but honestly to be back here in spring and feel good and get a good start in was definitely nice to give the ego a little boost for me. I’m ready for whatever happens this year, whatever role I got to be in.”

Mets left fielder Brandon Nimmo singled to lead off the bottom of the first. Ross retired the next batter and struck out veteran Robinson Canó. But Conforto drove a 3-2 fastball over the right field wall to give the Mets a 2-0 lead.

Ross-Pitch-Blue-sidebar.jpg“I battled. He fouled some pitches off,” Ross said of the Conforto at-bat. “Took some close pitches that were balls, obviously, and (I) kind of made a mistake, tried to go fastball in and it just kind of ran back over middle. He put a good swing on it, hit it out to right field.”

The Mets fouled off a lot of pitches early and Ross’ pitch count reached 46 after two innings. Manager Davey Martinez had said pregame that Ross could be limited to 45-50 pitches. But Ross said there was no question once the game started he was going to go out for the third frame.

“In my mind I was already ready to go for another one,” Ross said. “So, it wasn’t a surprise that he left me in. I’m glad that he did obviously so I could get more work in. But it was good for me to get the pitch count up each inning and then have to sit for five, six minutes, get back out there again. I’m happy with that one today.”

Despite getting to 61 pitches, Ross was satisfied he kept the Mets off the scoreboard for his final two innings, retiring seven of the final nine batters he faced.

“(I was) especially (pleased) with the ups, that’s the most ups I’ve had in spring,” Ross said. “A little bit different than what I’ve been doing so far but still felt good to be out there and attack the hitters. Felt like I had command. Still need to work on the changeup a little bit. That’s probably the fourth best pitch today. But using the four-seam a lot more, and stuff kind of came together.”

Ross broke down what he was trying to do with the changeup on a windy day at First Data Field. He was looking for better consistency from the pitch with each batter.

“(I was) trying to get it to look like the fastball and obviously keep the arm speed and arm action,” Ross said. “But I think it’s kind of a feel pitch that kind of takes a lot of reps to and I haven’t thrown it too much in games yet so it was kind of hit or miss today.”

Ross said catcher Kurt Suzuki was also focusing on moving the slider up to go with his sinker down in the zone to keep the hitters guessing.

“We were working on today especially throwing the slider kind of up in the zone like a cutter to the lefties,” Ross said. “It was really day one of me working on it but kind of went for it in the game, got a lot of good results. A lot of foul balls but it was kind of a different perspective to work up and down in the zone today.”

The pitch count got elevated a bit because the Mets were staying alive fouling off pitches. Ross knew why.

“Pitch selection, pitch execution more than anything,” Ross said. “I would say some of the backfoot sliders usually (I) like to throw weren’t quite getting the sharp action that I was working for. But the ones up in the zone, the four-seam I think had good enough life to get by on a couple of them. They put some good swings on balls, they have some good hitters in their lineup.”

The intended confusion Ross and Suzuki were trying to create worked as they were able to strike out three left-handed hitters in Cano, Luis Guillorme and Will Toffey.

“Yeah, (that was me) working up in the zone,” Ross said. “Being mostly a sinker baller for me (it is) better to be able to use all the zone and not kind of get pinned into a corner. Definitely good results being able to strike out the lefties which usually they kind of stack the lineups against me in the past. It’s looking good.”

It was also notable on the left field scoreboard that Ross was getting his fastball to 95, 96 mph. Ross felt strong with the pitch as the game began.

“I felt good, especially early on,” Ross said. “Kind of ran out of steam a little bit towards the end. But I threw a lot of pitches the first two innings and some full counts which I would like to get away from next time. You know, get ahead early, put them away early. Overall, yeah velocity was good. I tried not to look at the board too often, but it is what it is.”

So big picture, with the Nationals having Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson available as starters, does Ross believe he might begin the season in the bullpen or head to Triple-A Fresno?

“It’s hard not to think about but I really can’t control it other than going out there and pitch,” Ross said. “That’s kind of all I can do to help myself. But I’ve talked with them and whatever role fits obviously I’m more than happy to go out there and do my job. No matter where I’m at you got to go out and get outs. Maybe you face three guys or maybe you get the start and go five, six innings but either way it’s up to them.

“It’s a long season. Usually we go through at least six or seven starters in a year so whether I end up getting just a few spot starts or innings out of the bullpen it doesn’t really matter as far as what I want as long as we are out there winning games and hopefully be in the playoff run this year. It’s a long year, we got a lot of games, hopefully I’ll be up there for a little bit.”

Ross is happy with any role right now. The bottom line is that he feels healthy. That is the biggest takeaway from his recovery from elbow surgery.

“I feel good. I could have gone out for more,” Ross said. “Probably not smart to do so since I’ve only thrown two innings at once. But I feel good ready for whatever the next outing will be. I’m just excited to get ready for the season.”

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