Ross has first hiccup, still looks like top pick for No. 5 starter

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Davey Martinez had to decide which of Saturday’s split-squad games to attend in person. He could stay at home and watch Joe Ross and a few Nationals regulars face the Marlins, or he could go to Port St. Lucie and watch Austin Voth and his entire projected starting infield face the Mets.

Martinez chose to stay here, in large part because he wanted to watch Ross’ third start of the spring firsthand. If you needed another tea leaf to read about the Nationals’ intentions for the final spot in their opening day rotation, this might well have done the trick.

Ross certainly appeared to have a leg up on Voth for that job before both right-handers took the mound simultaneously 45 miles apart from each other. And though the latter pitched better than the former Saturday, it probably wasn’t enough to convince club officials to dramatically change their minds right now.

Ross came into this start having tossed five scoreless innings of one-hit ball. He came out of it having allowed his first two runs of the spring, and having racked up 57 pitches in only 2 1/3 innings before getting a premature hook from his manager.

“I think his tempo was a little off today,” Martinez said. “A little slower than he has (been) previously. Probably a little sluggish the third time through. But I like the way the ball was coming out still, so that’s good.”

Ross-Throws-Blue-Front-WS-G3.jpgRoss had to labor through his first inning, throwing 24 pitches while issuing back-to-back walks. A fierce, 21-mph wind that knocked a couple of potential flyouts to left all the way into the stands as unplayable foul balls didn’t help.

But he did get through that opening frame without surrendering a run. And he chose to view that long top of the first in positive terms.

“I feel like in comparison, more of a tough inning than I’d had the last couple outings,” he said. “Just getting the pitch count up, and then working with runners on base and stuff, it feels good to get used to that, at least now, instead of going into the season and then all of a sudden the bases are loaded and I’m like: ‘Well, I’ve never done this before.’ It’s good to get that one out of the way, I guess.”

The two runs scored off Ross came with one out in the third, when Jesús Aguilar sent a sinking liner into right field and past a diving JB Shuck for a two-run double. That’s when Martinez strolled to the mound to remove his starter.

Voth, meanwhile, cruised during his three scoreless innings against the Mets. The right-hander has now allowed only one run and seven baserunners in seven innings this spring, staking his claim for the final spot in the opening day rotation.

Club officials like Voth, but Ross’ performances combined with his track record may make him the obvious choice for the job when the Nationals break camp. Both players are out of options, so both have to make the team or else clear waivers before being demoted to the minors. That means one is likely to be in the rotation, the other in the bullpen as a long reliever.

And given Ross’ immense struggles as a reliever last season - an 11.17 ERA and 2.172 WHIP in 18 appearances - the ultimate decision seems fairly obvious.

Martinez won’t declare anything yet, though, and tried to explain away Ross’ relief struggles as a byproduct of his recovery from Tommy John surgery than a simple inability to pitch well in that role.

“A lot of things last year that we tried to do with him, like limiting his innings because of the injury, I think we’re beyond that now,” Martinez said. “I think he understands who he is and who he can be. He’s in a good spot right now. He’s throwing the ball well, consistent. But it’s still early.”

It’s still early, but it still looks like the Nationals are leaning toward doing exactly what they appeared to be leaning toward doing when camp opened.

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