If the Nationals are going to survive with Stephen Strasburg on the injured list, Patrick Corbin a mess and Jon Lester still building his arm up at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, they’re going to have to rely on the remaining members of their rotation not only to pitch effectively but to at times exceed expectations.
For two starts, that’s exactly what they got from Joe Ross, who didn’t so much as allow a single Dodgers or Cardinals runner to cross the plate while he was on the mound.
But to expect that every five nights from Ross, a 27-year-old still trying to prove himself at this level, would be foolhardy. They aren’t all going to go as swimmingly as those first two outings went. They just have to hope there aren’t any more duds like they got tonight during a 12-5 drubbing at the hands of St. Louis.
Pouring an ice-cold bucket of water on his red-hot start to the season, Ross was roughed up by the same lineup he dominated five days ago. This time, the Cardinals launched four homers off the right-hander - they added another later off reliever Kyle Finnegan - and piled up 10 runs during 4 1/3 tortured innings.
Suddenly, that near-perfect early April for Ross looks a little less impressive, his ERA having skyrocketed from 0.00 to 5.87 in the span of two hours. And a Nationals club that already was confronting major rotation issues watched one of its only reliable starters to date throw another clunker onto the growing pile.
“It’s not like I feel an extra burden to produce a quality start in that sense,” Ross said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But every time I go out there, I want to go deep in the game. It’s more my personal goal than a burden to carry the rotation. We have some really good pitchers, obviously, and those guys are going to be great at times. And at times, we’ll all struggle a little. It’s early. It’s still April. I can’t speak to the future, but I think we’ll be alright.”
This was, however, the third time in a week a Nats starter surrendered eight or more runs, Ross joining Strasburg (eight runs in St. Louis on Tuesday) and Corbin (10 runs versus Arizona on Thursday). And it continued a troubling trend for a rotation that has either been great or awful so far this season, rarely anything between.
In their five wins, the Nationals have seen their starters give up six total earned runs. In their nine losses, that number balloons to 40. And there’s a domino effect on the rest of the staff.
“We haven’t gotten any length out of our starters,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Our bullpen right now ... they did a great job for us once again, but they’re getting taxed. They’re pitching way, way too much. We’ve definitely got to keep an eye on these guys or we won’t have a bullpen.”
This evening actually got off to an encouraging start for Ross, who mowed through the top of the Cardinals lineup in a 1-2-3 top of the first, striking out Tommy Edman and Paul Goldschmidt and getting Nolan Arenado to pop up. His sinker-slider combo was working just as well as it did during his first two outings, and he now had opened his season with 12 consecutive scoreless innings (second-most for any starter in club history, four behind Liván Hernández’s streak to open the 2010 campaign).
But then Paul DeJong turned on a sinker from Ross (inside, but belt-high) and clanked it off the left field foul pole for a second-inning homer and the end of the scoreless streak. And things quickly devolved from there.
After retiring six of the first seven batters he faced, Ross retired only five of the final 17 who stepped to the plate against him. And two of the outs came on sacrifice bunts, including a perfectly executed safety squeeze by opposing starter Jack Flaherty.
Most of the runs came on big blasts. Edman drilled a 3-0 fastball to left in the third. Goldschmidt followed moments later with another solo shot off a rare Ross changeup. And DeJong put one last nail in the coffin with a grand slam into the red seats in deep left-center on Ross’ 85th and final pitch, blowing the game open and giving the Cardinals a 10-2 lead.
“I don’t know if anything changed (after the strong start),” he said. “I probably got away with a few missed pitches early on. But I was just not executing good pitches where I wanted to, and they made me pay for it.”
Everything after that was academic, though the Nationals did show signs of life and tried to make things interesting. Held scoreless for three innings by Flaherty, they plated a pair of runs in the fourth when Josh Bell doubled down the left field line for only his third hit in 22 at-bats this season and then scored on Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly. Doubles by Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes, and a single by Victor Robles brought home three more runs in the sixth and gave the paid crowd of 7,542 some reason to get excited.
But that’s as close as the Nats would get in this one. Once again, a disastrous performance by a member of their rotation left them in a sizeable hole. And this time, it came from one of their brightest lights during the first two weeks of a 2021 season that has included far too many dark splotches.
“Just a tough day for him,” Martinez said of Ross. “Hopefully, he learns something today, he bounces back. We need him.”