Nats ride Ross’ zeros, Zimmerman’s homer to victory (updated)

Nine games into a season that already has featured a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, the Nationals have plenty of questions that still need answering, particularly within a rotation that was built to carry this team.

Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin did not look good during this just-completed road trip. Jon Lester is still trying to build his arm back up after landing on the COVID-19-related injured list.

Here, though, is one starter nobody in a Nats uniform needs to be worried about right now: Joe Ross.

Yes, the 27-year-old who spent the first portion of his career alternately flashing glimpses of potential while battling injuries or ineffectiveness, then chose to sit out the 2020 season during the pandemic, is back and better than ever.

And the Nationals, who rode six more scoreless innings from the right-hander to a 6-0 victory today in St. Louis, couldn’t be more pleased with this development, both in the short- and long-term.

Zimmerman-HR-Swing-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“I’m so happy for Joe,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who also has returned strong after opting out of last season, during a postgame Zoom session. “He’s kind of a quiet guy. He just goes about his business, he works hard. But with what he went through and then obviously sitting out last year, he’s just such a solid person. That’s the best way to explain Joe. ... I’m excited to see what he can do this year. I’m really happy for him.”

On the heels of an ugly 14-3 loss Tuesday night in which all kinds of red flags were raised about the struggling Strasburg, the Nats flipped the switch back on in today’s series finale. They got a big early homer from Zimmerman, then clutch at-bats from Trea Turner, Juan Soto and Josh Harrison to cruise to a relatively simple victory, capture the series and return home to D.C. with a 3-6 record after a 1-5 start.

“Since we got here this morning, we just talked about winning the series,” Soto said. “Forget about what happened last night and try to win.”

They all helped make that happen. But it was Ross, still sporting a 0.00 ERA two starts into the season, who made the biggest difference.

Ross had already opened this road trip with an impressive start at Dodger Stadium, tossing five scoreless innings against one of the league’s deepest lineups in his official return following last summer’s opt-out. If there was any doubt about his ability to pick up where he left off, the right-hander put those to rest immediately this afternoon, looking every bit the same pitcher against the Cardinals.

St. Louis put two runners on base in the bottom of the first, with Yadier Molina singling up the middle minutes after receiving a standing ovation in honor of his 2,000th career game with the franchise. But Ross got Matt Carpenter to ground out to end that potential rally.

From that point on, Ross was off and running. He faced only one batter over the minimum from the second through the fifth innings, keeping the Cardinals off-balance the entire time with a sinker-slider combo that was highly effective.

Ross’ sinker, which registered 94-96 mph, had both good velocity and good movement to his arm side. His slider, which registered 85-87 mph, broke well to his glove side, leaving hitters guessing where to swing.

That repertoire has worked to near-perfection so far. In 11 total innings against the Dodgers and Cardinals, Ross has allowed only nine baserunners, none of them crossing the plate.

“It feels good,” Ross said. “Obviously, coming back and having a good start to the season in general, it’s always a good feeling to start strong. We’ve had kind of a tough start to our season, but I think we’re kind of turning it around, taking two of three here. And hopefully we can continue on and have everyone firing back in the normal rotation now.”

At this point, the other thing the 27-year-old needs to do to reach peak form is build up his pitch count after his year away. He was held to 67 in his season debut, then 89 today. After another start or two, he should be up into triple digits and good to go the rest of the way.

“When I saw Joe pre-Tommy John (surgery), I always thought he was going to have a pretty good future,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He got hurt, and now he gets an opportunity to go out there and pitch. I think he’s grown over the last year and a half, of what he wants to do and how he wants to approach pitching and his routine. He’s going to be a huge addition to our starting rotation.”

Ross’ teammates made life easier today by staking him to an early lead, a new-look top of the lineup paying dividends just as Martinez hoped it would. Wanting to give his best hitters the potential for more at-bats against Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright, Martinez moved Victor Robles down to the nine-spot and elevated Turner and Soto to become his one-two punch at the top of the order.

The more subtle move, though, was the decision to bat Zimmerman third, a spot in the order he has held 899 times during his long career but only 12 times since 2013. Martinez knew the 36-year-old had enjoyed considerable success against Wainwright over the years and wanted to put him in position to do more damage today.

Which is exactly what Zimmerman did in the top of the third. Battling his way through a nine-pitch at-bat, the old man finally connected on a 3-2 fastball and drove it deep to left-center for his first homer since Game 1 of the 2019 World Series, his fourth in 44 career at-bats vs. Wainwright.

“Fouled off a couple good curveballs, kind of just stayed alive,” said Zimmerman, who first faced Wainwright as a rookie in 2006. “I was just looking for anything at that point. Not trying to hit a home run, obviously. Just trying to get on base. And he does such a good job of not making mistakes with that curveball, and it’s so hard to lay off it. I was just trying to put a good swing on something. It ended up being a pretty good at-bat.”

The top of the order delivered in tandem in the top of the fifth to extend the Nationals’ lead. Turner doubled down the right field line, then scored when Soto ripped a single to center that got past Lane Thomas for an unearned run. And when Harrison singled home Soto three batters later - he’s now 6-for-7 with two walks since starting Monday night’s season debut 0-for-3 - the lead was 4-0.

Two more tack-on runs late provided extra cushion for the bullpen, and ensured the Nationals would leave St. Louis with a series victory and come home feeling OK about themselves after a roller-coaster opening road trip to the season.

“It’s just been crazy, a crazy start, how we go with this corona thing and everything,” Soto said. “I think I’m a little used to it, but I know my teammates are getting used to it. Just getting back from the quarantine and getting ready quicker and being ready mentally and physically at the same time. I think it’s just been a little weird for us, but I think we’ll be fine.”

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