For nearly a year, Joe Ross had only been able to play catch with his brother, Tyson, or perhaps face a few hitters on a field at home in California. Finally this spring, there were a couple of sessions of live batting practice against his Nationals teammates, but still not an actual game against another team wearing a different uniform.
So while today’s Grapefruit League exhibition in West Palm Beach, Fla., between the Nats and Mets may not have meant much to most of the participants, it meant a whole lot to Ross. For the first time in a long time, he was on the mound in a game.
“There’s no real way to compare or, I don’t know, kind of recreate that scenario in the offseason,” the right-hander said during his Zoom session with reporters after departing the game, a 9-5 Nationals win. “Even if you were to do it live or face some hitters, having it be the game scenario with your guys versus another team, especially guys that you play against a lot and you know and have previous history with, at-bats and things like that, that kind of all immediately comes back to you as the game’s going on.”
Ross has experienced the feeling of a return to game action after a long layoff due to injury. He missed the second half of the 2017 season and most of the 2018 season following Tommy John surgery on his elbow.
This time, though, was different. This time, he was returning from a year off of his own choosing. He made the decision to opt out of the 2020 season for health and safety reasons, so while his teammates were playing a 60-game sprint last summer, he could only watch from home and eagerly anticipate the day he’d be back with them.
“I was probably more nervous coming back from Tommy John, I would think, being actually hurt and rehabbing,” he said. “Yeah, I missed a lot of time definitely, and I’m sure that will have an impact at some point or some way in the season. But as far as that goes, it felt fairly normal.”
Ross threw 39 pitches across 1 2/3 innings. He struck out three batters, including one on a changeup to get the Mets’ Dominic Smith. He also was charged with one run on one hit and one walk.
Results, of course, only matter so much on March 8. Even for a guy technically competing for a spot in the opening day rotation.
As was the case one year ago, Ross entered camp as the stated frontrunner for the open No. 5 slot in the Nationals rotation, with a leg up on Erick Fedde and Austin Voth based on his track record and lack of minor league options.
Consensus opinion remains that he simply needs to show he’s healthy and relatively sharp this spring to win the job, not necessarily outpitch the others.
“I haven’t given Joe a definitive, (that) he’s going to be the fifth starter,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Fedde threw the ball a lot better today (two scoreless innings in relief). Voth has thrown the ball well. But I think if push comes to shove, if he’s throwing the ball well, we can do different things. With that being said, it’s a long year. And he missed a year. So we’ve definitely got to keep an eye on him, keep an eye on his innings.”
That said, Ross didn’t view today’s start as a mere opportunity to see how he felt and how opposing batters reacted to his pitches. Give him the ball and tell him to face another lineup for the first time in a year, and he’s going to want to compete.
“Definitely compete mode,” he said. “Once the games start, even live in BPs, you get on the mound, you face a batter, you’re competing. If you’re still feeling it out, it’s not quite going to be right regardless. Then definitely today, first game, whether it’s one inning or two innings or trying to go five innings, just got to compete with what you have. I feel like if you do anything else, then you’re kind of shorting yourself a little bit on that day’s outing.”
There should be four more opportunities for Ross to pitch this spring and build his arm up to regular season shape. Each one will bring him one step closer to his ultimate goal: taking the mound in a real major league game for the first time in 17 months.
That was Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park. That might as well be ancient history at this point.
“I would say it feels like it was two, you could even say three years ago,” Ross said. “It feels like a long time. I mean, spring training games are one thing. But the last real game was in the World Series, which thinking back feels like a long time ago. ... It’s felt like a while, but I felt good today. And it feels good to be back and pitching again.”