TAMPA, Fla. - Joe Ross could be forgiven if he was feeling a bit antsy before taking the mound at Steinbrenner Field this afternoon for his long-awaited spring debut.
He thought he was going to pitch last weekend in West Palm Beach, and even warmed up to relieve Max Scherzer in the Grapefruit League opener, but watched the heavens open up and force the cancellation of the game. That led to an extra four days’ wait before his turn came up again this afternoon.
But in order to pitch today, Ross had to board a bus at 6:45 a.m. and take a 3 1/2-hour ride across the state, all for a game that was going to be threatened by rain again.
Thankfully - from Ross’ standpoint, at least - the rain held off until after he completed two scoreless innings against the Yankees. Three innings later, the game was called with New York ahead 8-2, Ross and the Nationals facing another long ride home after playing only half a ballgame.
“It was a little frustrating, but luckily I stayed on schedule with where I was (between scheduled starts),” the right-hander said. “I’m glad I got this one out of the way. Unfortunately, it was a long bus ride, but it is what it is.”
From Ross’ standpoint, it was worth it. Facing a Yankees lineup loaded with big names, he cruised through his planned two innings of work on only 24 pitches. He retired DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner in the bottom of the first, then Gary Sánchez, Gio Urshela and Miguel Andújar in the second. His 94-mph fastball had life and command. He threw first-pitch strikes to five of the six batters he faced.
“I loved everything about him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He was under control. He threw first-pitch strikes. He threw the ball in when he wanted to. He got the ball elevated when he wanted to. He was really good.”
Pitchers say they like to face big league opponents in spring training; it’s better to gauge how effective their stuff is when going up against the best hitters. In this case, Ross was especially pleased to enjoy that kind of success against the Yankees lineup.
“I feel like there’s a difference between a team’s regulars and facing the Yankees,” he said. “I think it maybe turns it up a notch as far as competition in-game. First outing, you want to work on some things. And then they step in the box and it kind of switches like that. It’s good to get a feel for how they’re seeing me, if I can execute some sequences and stuff like that. I think I did all right today.”
So each of the Nationals’ three competitors for the final spot in the opening day rotation has now made a start this spring. Ross (two perfect innings) and Austin Voth (two hitless innings) each made a positive first impression. Erick Fedde (one run, two hits, two walks in 1 1/3 innings) had more trouble.
Like his counterparts, Ross knows what’s at stake over the next month. But like his counterparts, he makes a point not to stress over it.
“Once you get out on the field, that’s the last thing I’m thinking about,” he said. “You just go out there and try to execute pitches and efficiently get through your outing. I feel like I did that today. We’ll see how it goes the rest of the spring. I’m excited just to get the season started.”
Ross was the only Nationals pitcher to enjoy any success on this rainy, abbreviated afternoon. David Hernandez faced five batters in the bottom of the third and failed to retire any of them. Ryne Harper allowed two inherited runners to score, plus another he put on base himself. Tanner Rainey gave up two runs on two hits and two walks in the fourth. And Javy Guerra retired only one of the four batters he faced in the fifth before umpires called for the tarp.
Those pitchers weren’t aided by the guys playing behind them. Carter Kieboom was charged with his second throwing error in three games played at third base so far this spring. Victor Robles also was charged with an error after an odd sequence that appeared to leave the center fielder wincing in pain.
With the bases loaded and nobody out in the third, Sánchez hit a routine fly ball to center. Robles caught it and then prepared to throw the ball to second base, making sure the trailing runner didn’t advance on the sacrifice fly.
But Robles slipped, and “my feet kind of gave out a little bit on me,” which caused him to pump-fake his throw. At that point, he decided to try to throw Torres out at third base but airmailed his throw into the dugout.
“In my mind, I was just thinking: ‘Throw to second base to keep the double play in order,’” Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I saw the way (Torres) attempted to take the base, just kind of faked. So I thought I might’ve had a chance at him. That’s why I decided to throw.”
As various Yankees raced around the bases, Robles dropped to a knee, then got up and winced, twisting his midsection from side to side in apparent pain. He remained in the game, though, and played one more inning in the field while taking one more at-bat.
Asked if he hurt anything on the play, Robles responded: “No, it was more of a cramp that I felt. But I’m fine.”
As for the ill-advised throw to third, the young outfielder had a chat with his manager after he returned to the dugout.
“I talked to him about it,” Martinez said. “He realized he screwed up.”