Ross throws off mound, Elías still two days away (Nats up 2-1)

PITTSBURGH - Though the Nationals haven’t made any formal announcements yet, it appears Joe Ross is good to start Saturday afternoon in Chicago, his lower right leg having healed enough from the comebacker that struck him during Monday’s game against the Pirates.

Ross threw a full bullpen session late this afternoon and did not appear to be limited or hindered in any significant way. Davey Martinez, who watched the session up close in the visitors’ bullpen at PNC Park, said in his earlier pregame session with reporters the simple fact Ross was throwing at all today was encouraging in its own right.

Ross-Winds-Gray@SF-sidebar.jpg“That’s a good sign,” the manager said.

With Max Scherzer returning tonight from his second stint on the injured list with upper back issues, the Nationals needed to drop someone from a rotation that has held up quite well in the ace’s absence. The choice came down to Ross (who has allowed one run in 21 1/3 innings over his last four starts) or Erick Fedde (3-1 with a 4.99 ERA over his last six outings) and Martinez said Ross would get the nod, provided he is healthy enough to pitch.

Ross was headed for another quality start Monday night, holding the Pirates scoreless into the fourth inning before he was struck in the right shin by a 110-mph comebacker. The right-hander’s leg was sore the next day and remained wrapped, but his condition improved in the last 48 hours and allowed him to throw off the bullpen mound today.

The Nationals instructed Fedde to prepare in case he was needed to start Saturday in Ross’ place, but it now appears the right-hander will become a long reliever in the bullpen after Kyle McGowin was optioned to Double-A Harrisburg today to clear a spot on the active roster for Scherzer.

As things currently stand, the Nationals will have Aníbal Sánchez starting Friday afternoon’s series opener at Wrigley Field against the Cubs’ Jon Lester. Ross appears set to face lefty José Quintana on Saturday, with Stephen Strasburg starting Sunday’s finale against Cole Hamels.

Meanwhile, reliever Roenis Elías threw off flat ground today, ramping up his intensity from previous sessions. The left-hander, who strained his hamstring running the bases in his Nationals debut Aug. 2, is expected to throw off a mound Saturday for the first time since suffering the injury.

Update: In a surprise to nobody, the Nationals jumped on the Pirates starter right from the get-go tonight. They scored two runs in the top of the first, getting doubles from Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, a bunt single from Adam Eaton (with Turner scoring after first baseman Josh Bell dropped the throw) and an RBI groundout from Howie Kendrick. They had a chance for another rally in the second, loading the bases with two outs and Rendon at the plate. But Rendon popped up to the catcher on the first pitch and was disgusted with himself for doing it. Scherzer, meanwhile, has thrown two scoreless innings to begin his return from injury, but he hasn’t been quite as sharp as he’s used to being. He’s needed 35 pitches to get through the two innings, with two hits allowed (one of them a ball Juan Soto lost in the lights and played into a double). Scherzer’s velocity is there (his fastball is 95 mph) but his command isn’t quite there yet. Nats lead 2-0 after two.

Update II: True to his word, Martinez limited Scherzer’s workload tonight. He pulled his starter after only four innings and 71 pitches. They were not the sharpest four innings of Scherzer’s career. He surrendered a towering home run to Adam Frazier in the bottom of the third. He allowed four hits and a walk. He struck out three. He had some trouble putting away hitters, and his command was not up to its usual standard. But he appeared to emerge from this healthy, which is most important. As always, the real key is how Scherzer feels tomorrow. But tonight was an important first step to getting him all the way back. Nats lead 2-1 after four.

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