The Nationals’ starting rotation was described as potentially historic coming into this season. When critics were searching for new superlatives for the Nats’ big five, nobody had any idea, not even the Nationals brass, that 22-year-old rookie Joe Ross would provide some of the most dominating performances to help hold the team together before the All-Star break.
In just the third start of his big league career, Ross fanned 11 Pirates while holding them to one run on six hits with only one walk over 7 1/3 innings as the Nationals won 4-1. He joined John Lannan (2008) and Stephen Strasburg (2010) as the only Nationals rookies to strike out at least 10 batters in a game.
“I always thought of myself as being good enough to be up here,” Ross said. “I guess that’s kind of a big part of being confident out there on the mound ... just thinking I belong. I don’t think I could’ve imagined it going so well so early, but you gotta run with it.”
Almost as impressive as the strikeouts is the command and control the youngster has displayed. He set a Nationals record in his last start by waiting 54 batters into his career before issuing his first walk. He only surrendered one free pass tonight and has only walked two in 22 1/3 innings while striking out 23 over his three outings.
“He’s aggressive,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “He throws strikes down in the zone, which leads to a lot of swings on the slider down out of the zone. But it starts with the fastball. He throws it where he wants to. He pitches in to right-handers, which is good, too. He gets him off that slider a little bit. He’s aggressive. He’s been aggressive since he’s been here. He’s pitched really well for us.”
The Nationals acquired the former 2011 first-rounder from the Padres in December in the three-way deal which also netted highly ranked shortstop prospect Trea Turner. But Ross wasn’t expected to sniff the majors this year. However, when Strasburg ended up on the 15-day disabled list on May 30 with a strained trapezius muscle, general manager Mike Rizzo called Ross up from Double-A Harrisburg.
Even Williams wasn’t too familiar with Ross when he showed up at Nationals Park a few weeks ago before his major league debut against the Cubs.
“None of us really had a chance to see him other than spring training,” Williams said. “We went over one day to minor league camp to watch Felipe (Rivero) throw and (Ross) started a game over there and that’s the only time I’d seen him pitch. You don’t get a chance to see him from the back side (of camp). It’s a long way from our viewing perspective. So I don’t know if we can be surprised because we just didn’t know.”
With Strasburg seemingly set to return from the DL any day now, Rizzo and Williams are left with a difficult decision on Ross, who has delivered two straight wins for them. Ross will likely end up back in the minors. If so, Williams won’t have doubts when he hands the ball to him again.
“It allows us to have confidence in him in any situation,” Williams said. “So whether that’s starting or if he comes back and is in the bullpen or if he remains in the bullpen or what have you. It’s the impression that we all hoped he would make and I’m sure he’s proud to have made. So we’ll see where we go from here.”
Ross said his brief successful stint in the majors will help him remain confident no matter where he ends up. Meanwhile, he received his first standing ovation from the sellout crowd at Nats Park when he left the mound in the eighth inning.
“It felt pretty good,” Ross said. “I haven’t experienced anything like that, obviously, with almost 40,000 fans here. Hopefully, I get it a few more times.”