Ross steps up again to pitch Nats to series sweep (updated)

SAN FRANCISCO - They arrived in the cool Bay Area late Sunday night having just gotten smoked in the Arizona desert, losers of three straight series for the first time in three months. The Nationals needed a bounceback week against a Giants club trying to mount a surprising run at a wild card berth.

That’s exactly what they got. With a pair of shutout wins orchestrated by the supposedly weak back end of their rotation, the Nationals swept the Giants, thanks to today’s 4-1 victory, and headed back east flying high again in advance of a suddenly big weekend series in New York against a Mets club that has won 13 of 14 to get back into contention.

“That’s a good sweep,” said Gerardo Parra, who led the charge offensively today with a three-run homer. “That’s a good sweep, because we go to New York (and) these guys are playing really good right now.”

Erick Fedde led the way in Monday night’s win with six scoreless innings. Joe Ross duplicated the feat this afternoon, putting up six zeroes himself to lead the Nationals to a win at Oracle Park that was dampened a bit by the mid-game departure of Anthony Rendon after he was hit by a pitch on his right foot.

Rendon took that pitch from Giants reliever Andrew Suarez off his back foot in the top of the fourth, and though he initially remained in the game he didn’t look comfortable trotting down to first base. Two innings later, he was being replaced by Asdrúbal Cabrera at third base.

The Nationals said Rendon left the game with a sore big toe, and manager Davey Martinez didn’t sound especially worried after the game.

“It’s really nothing,” Martinez said. “He got hit in the big toe, and he just got really sore. So for precautionary reasons, we got him in, got him iced up and he said he feels OK.”

Given Rendon’s well documented history of missing significant time after getting hit by a pitch in seemingly innocuous fashion, feel free to hold your breath until Friday’s lineup is unveiled.

Rendon’s injury notwithstanding, this was a positive day for the Nationals to cap a positive three-day stay in San Francisco. Martinez saw his team take an early lead in every game and never relinquish it. He saw his newly fortified bullpen toss a combined nine innings of two-run ball, even with Fernando Rodney and Sean Doolittle sitting out today’s finale and Daniel Hudson needing to close out today’s win (after allowing one run in the ninth).

He saw Parra deliver yet another big hit in a big spot: a three-run homer against the team that released him earlier this season.

And saw Ross come through with his best outing of what had been a miserable season until he headed west with the club last week.

Ross-Winds-Gray@SF-sidebar.jpgRoss entered this road trip with a 9.85 ERA and a most uncertain future. But Max Scherzer’s lingering upper back injury forced the right-hander into the No. 5 starter’s slot, and he responded with a pair of impressive performances.

After holding the Diamondbacks scoreless for 5 1/3 innings (despite five walks) on Friday night, Ross held the Giants scoreless for six full innings today. He scattered three hits and two walks, rarely faced any tenuous situation and relied on his sinker to get himself outs.

“I’ve been feeling good and feeling strong, especially later in the game,” the right-hander said. “Sometimes I see the velo drop a couple miles an hour as the game goes on, but I’ve been throwing strong the last two starts.”

The Nationals have been working with Ross on a slight mechanical tweak. They want him to keep his front hip closed a bit more as he releases the ball. That creates more action on his sinker, which has become his best pitch during this resurgent week.

“You get to sink the ball a little bit more,” Martinez said. “Keep the ball down a little bit more. Uses his legs a little bit more.”

Who knows how much longer the Nationals will need him in their big league rotation, but Ross’ performance certainly has brought some peace of mind while everyone waits for Scherzer to recover.

Just as they did for Fedde and Aníbal Sánchez the last two nights, the Nationals gave their starting pitcher an early lead. Singles by Trea Turner and Adam Eaton, then productive outs by Rendon and Juan Soto brought home a first-inning run and allowed Ross to take the mound with a little bit of cushion.

Then came the big blast in the top of the third, supplied by none other than the man who has supplied an inordinate number of big moments in relation to his playing time with the Nationals.

When Parra stepped to the plate with two on and two out in the third, the optimist would believe he could drive in at least one of the runners, maybe both. Turns out he drove in three, including himself, with an opposite-field home run, no small achievement in this super-sized ballpark.

At that moment, Parra had given the Nationals a 4-0 lead, and he had added to his already ridiculous output in clutch situations. Since joining the club in mid-May, he’s batting .414 (14-for-34) with nine extra base hits and 27 RBIs with runners in scoring position, all of that amounting to a 1.400 OPS. Narrow it down to his 18 plate appearances with two outs and runners and scoring position, and Parra is batting .563 with a 1.736 OPS.

“I’m happy with that,” he said. “In that situation, I’m just trying to hit the ball into the middle (of the field), not trying to do it too big, and trying to hit a good ball in the sun. ... And I got home, so I’m happy about that. And I did my best in every situation.”

Oh, and did we mention Parra has also played six different positions in the last five days: center field, right field, first base, second base, third base and pitcher?

“It’s awesome,” Martinez said before the game. “Yesterday he hit second. Today he’s hitting sixth. For me, having a guy like that who doesn’t really care, just wants to play and help us win, is tremendous. He always tells me: ‘Hey, whatever you need, I’m there.’”

“Maybe I play short or third and catch it one time,” Parra said with a laugh. “I’m happy. And like I said, I’m here and doing the best for my team. Whatever position, whatever at-bat, defense, I do my best.”

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