Ross dominates again, bullpen pieces together the rest (updated)

The longest scoreless innings streak from a member of the Nationals pitching staff this season doesn’t belong to Max Scherzer. It doesn’t belong to Stephen Strasburg. It doesn’t belong to Patrick Corbin. And it doesn’t belong to Sean Doolittle.

It belongs to Joe Ross. And if that fact doesn’t surprise you, you haven’t been paying close attention to the 2019 season.

Given up for dead by everyone other than the folks who call the shots in the Nationals organization, Ross has completely transformed his once wayward season into something legitimately hopeful, all in the span of two weeks.

Ross-Firing-Blue-Sidebar.jpgYes, the right-hander finally surrendered a run in the top of the seventh tonight, ending his scoreless innings streak at 17 1/3 innings. But his performance tonight was critical to a 3-1 victory over the Reds and certainly won over even more fans and other doubters who never saw this coming from the guy who after bouncing back and forth from the bullpen in D.C. to the rotation in Fresno was tasked with replacing the injured Max Scherzer in the big league rotation and has seized the opportunity.

“I guess it’s just more timing than anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I ever really doubt myself. But with Max being out - and hopefully he’ll come back soon, I’m not sure exactly what he’s planned for - but, I mean, it’s been good for us. We’re in a tight race, so it’s better now than ever, you know?”

Ross’ 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball earned him the win. But Davey Martinez still needed 2 1/3 innings from his bullpen, one that didn’t have Doolittle’s services after the recently shaky closer had pitched four of the last five days.

Martinez wound up using Hunter Strickland to record the final out of the seventh. He used Wander Suero to record the first two outs of the eighth. And then he used Daniel Hudson to record both the final out of the eighth (on only two pitches) and then all three outs in the ninth, with Hudson pitching around a leadoff double and a two-out single to earn his first save as a National, 12th of his long career.

“I like him in that spot right there,” Martinez said. “Since he’s been here, he’s been everything as advertised. Now the key is to keep him like that.”

Ross’ sudden transformation has been the result of tweaks both mechanical and mental. He started closing his front hip more to create a better angle for his sinker to move more. He started raising his left knee higher to generate more power. And he started using a curveball in addition to his slider, offering up some more variance of speeds from his pitching repertoire.

The difference has been nothing short of stunning. Owner of a 9.85 ERA before this run, he has now strung together three straight dominant starts, lowering said ERA to 5.91.

“He’s been through a lot,” Martinez said. “Now he feels good. Now he feels confident. Now he’s throwing 90-100 pitches, plus. You see Joe come back and be that pitcher before he got hurt (in 2017), it’s really nice.”

In addition to his effectiveness tonight, Ross also was highly efficient. Martinez has challenged him to finish each at-bat in four or fewer pitches. He was even better than that in the first inning, needing only eight pitches to face three batters and return to the dugout.

Ross kept it going, retiring the side in the second and third, pitching around a leadoff double in the fourth and then retiring the side again in the fifth, all while keeping his pitch count at 63.

“I think just the adjustments I’ve made have really helped the fastball for the most part,” he said. “Late action and trying to stay down in the zone, and then just building off that with the off-speed and stuff. Trying to get ahead and limit my walks. First couple games were a little rough, but I’ve made some adjustments since then.”

Because Ross was efficient, Martinez could afford to give his starter some rope to pitch out of a jam in the sixth - though a big assist went to Victor Robles, who for the second straight night fired a throw from center field at least 97 mph to nail a surprised runner. This one - a 97.5 mph laser from right-center field to third base without squaring up his shoulders - was especially impressive and brought a roar from the crowd of 30,130.

“It’s definitely difficult, especially since my body’s moving in a different direction from the bag,” Robles said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And at times even dangerous to hurt yourself there. But I was able to do it.”

The Nationals gave Ross a 3-0 lead thanks to an unusual first-inning run and then two blasts in the fourth.

With runners on the corners and one out in the first, Juan Soto grounded to first. Joey Votto elected to step on the bag and then throw to second to complete the 3-6 double play. But because he negated the forceout, Robles was free to score from third before the tag was made at second base. So the Nationals emerged with a 1-0 lead.

They turned more conventional in their approach in the fourth, when Soto and Brian Dozier each blasted homers off lefty Alex Wood. Soto, back in the lineup two days after spraining his right ankle in New York, launched a fastball into the second deck down the right field line for his 25th of the season. Dozier, back in the lineup after two days dealing with salmonella, then belted a ball to left for his 17th homer.

“I feel really well at the plate,” said Soto, who at that point had four homers in a span of 10 at-bats. “We’ve been working a lot on my balance and all this stuff with (hitting coach) Kevin Long. So right now I’m seeing the ball really better and swinging the bat better.”

That’s all the offense the Nationals would provide their pitching staff. So when Ross finally gave up a run with two outs in the seventh and Martinez turned to his bullpen, the margin for error was on full display. Once again, the Nats held a late lead. And once again, that lead wasn’t large enough to make the pitching decision simple.

But once again, the Nationals walked away with a win.

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