In the first inning of Joe Ross’ third big league start last night, the rookie right-hander stood on the mound and peered down at Pirates All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the National League’s 2013 MVP.
“I try not to make it more than it is just because I want to stay focused on what I’m trying to do and execute my pitches,” Ross said. “But, I mean, it’s hard not to recognize when you look at the lineup and hear him getting announced and you see him in the box. It’s pretty cool.”
Ross wasn’t kind to the four-time All-Star, ending their first meeting swiftly on just three pitches as McCutchen whiffed mightily at a devastating slider. That same pitch got McCutchen swinging again in the third for another one of Ross’ 11 strikeouts. When McCutchen finally connected on one of Ross’ offerings in the sixth, it was just a lazy fly ball to Denard Span.
It wasn’t Ross’ first encounter with a superstar in his short time in the majors. Last Saturday, 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun fell victim to Ross’ slippery slider, striking out three times in four hitless at-bats. So checking the box score, perennial All-Stars McCutchen and Braun are a combined 0-for-7 with five strikeouts against the youngster.
“It gives him confidence to know that he can pitch against arguably one of the hottest teams in all of baseball and have success,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said after last night’s win. “That does nothing but give him confidence. From what I know of him and his personality, that doesn’t change the way he’s gonna go about it, regardless of where he’s at or what role he’s pitching in. He’ll continue to do what he does best and that’s pound the strike zone with fastballs and use his slider.”
Drew Storen picked up his 20th save last night, securing the second straight win for Ross. Storen, who possesses his own filthy slider, was admiring Ross’ while watching from the bullpen throughout the game.
“It’s going straight down,” Storen said. “Those guys, you could tell that if they were laying off it that they were probably looking for it. And then he would go back to it the next pitch and get ‘em swinging on it. So that’s lights out. Impressive. He trusts his stuff. He goes out there and attacks and you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Ross didn’t allow many base runners last night, scattering six hits and only issuing one walk. In the fifth, Span lost Gregory Polaco’s fly ball in the lights and it fell for leadoff double. Ross wasn’t fazed by the gaffe. He responded to the adversity by striking out the next two Pirates before ending the inning on another fly ball.
“He’s always aggressive,” Wilson Ramos said. “To me, like Max Scherzer. When he gets a man on base, he’s like twice more aggressive than when he doesn’t have runners on base. I think he’s watching Max Scherzer videos. He looked pretty aggressive with runners on base. That’s what he needs to do.”
Indeed Ross has spent time picking Scherzer’s brain and others on the staff. He attributed a lot of his early success to some of their assistance.
“They kinda give me tidbits after each outing,” Ross said. “So there’s a few things I can take into each start and those have really helped me since I’ve been up here.”
And the advice that sticks out the most from some of the game’s most accomplished pitchers?
“Breathe, for one,” Ross said. “I feel like everyone tells me that before every game. It does a lot more than you think, taking a step back and focusing on the next pitch.”
Tyler Moore, who went 2-for-4 last night, met Ross in spring training and the two ended up rooming together. Ross’ character quickly made an impression on Moore on and off the field.
“He’s got that leadership quality,” Moore said. “I feel like he wants the ball, even though he’s young like that. He just goes right after that. He kind of did the same thing to me on the golf course, which wasn’t good. But he’s a good dude, and he’s very mature.”