Davey Martinez knew what Joe Ross had been getting away with in recent starts before tonight’s game in Arizona, and so the Nationals manager knew exactly what his right-hander needed to do to be successful in this outing.
“The pitches are up,” Martinez said during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “When he’s down, he’s really effective.”
As such, it wasn’t hard to figure out why Ross wasn’t effective tonight during an 11-4 trouncing at the hands of the Diamondbacks. Plain and simple, he couldn’t get the ball down in the zone with any consistency.
Over the course of four-plus laborious innings, Ross gave up eight runs and eight hits, nearly all of those coming on pitches at waist level or higher. He dug his team into an early hole, then couldn’t keep the deficit close for his teammates, who after a fast start against Diamondbacks starter Seth Frankoff went silent against the 32-year-old rookie.
It all made for a decidedly unsatisfying night at Chase Field, where only 24 hours earlier the Nationals exploded for a season-high 17 runs and 22 hits during a blowout victory to begin this road trip. They’ll now need to regroup and find a way both to hit and pitch better in Sunday afternoon’s finale in the desert, with Erick Fedde on the mound for potentially his last start before Stephen Strasburg is ready to retake his spot in the rotation.
Like Ross, Fedde relies on downward movement on his sinker to pitch effectively. The Nats have to hope Sunday’s starter does a better job of that than tonight’s did.
Ross was in trouble from the outset. The Diamondbacks’ first four batters all recorded hits off him, including Josh Rojas’ double off the top of the wall in right field and Eduardo Escobar’s two-run single to left. By the time the bottom of the first ended, Arizona had three runs on the board thanks to an ultra-aggressive approach that saw them record those first four hits only 10 pitches into the inning.
“Not really surprising, as far as being an aggressive lineup,” Ross said. “But just not really greatly executed two-seam (fastballs), was catching a little too much of the plate. ... They were being aggressive, some good hits, obviously. And some that I wish could’ve gone differently.”
Ross briefly settled down to retire 10 of 12 batters for a stretch from the first into the fourth. But then the wheels came off during a ragged stretch with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. The right-hander plunked Pavin Smith with an errant sinker, walked Rojas on five pitches and then grooved a 3-2 fastball to Escobar, who launched it deep to right field for a three-run homer.
“Just got too much of the plate,” he said of the home run pitch. “Which kind of was the case with a few fastballs today.”
His starter having allowed six runs in four innings and due to lead off the fifth, Martinez could’ve elected to pinch-hit for Ross and call it a night after 80 pitches. But he chose to let him bat for himself, and though Ross did reach base on an error, the Nats weren’t able to score. And when he retook the mound for the fifth, he didn’t remain out there long.
Ross threw only six pitches in the inning, his velocity down 2-3 mph. Josh VanMeter singled on the second of them. Daulton Varsho drew a subsequent four-pitch walk. And Martinez made the walk to the mound to take the ball from his starter.
“We were just trying to get through one more inning,” the manager said. “We’ve got no days off coming up, and I don’t want to tax our bullpen. They’ve been doing well. We thought we could get maybe another inning out of him. But once his (velocity) started going down like that, I just decided that was it.”
“Definitely disappointing not to get through the fifth there,” Ross said. “Kind of a long inning on the offensive side prior, but it is what it is. Out there running bases, no big deal. But I would’ve liked to get through five and give a little less work for the bullpen.”
It was a disappointing result after a growing stretch of strong outings by the Nationals rotation. And it came on a night when their lineup didn’t have much going on against an unknown opponent.
Frankoff was making the first start of his big league career, capping a long and winding path that had seen the 32-year-old make one relief appearance for the Cubs in 2017, then become something of a star in Korea for two seasons before making two relief appearances for the Mariners in 2020.
The Nats scored a couple early runs, with Victor Robles’ two-out RBI single in the second trimming the deficit at the time to 3-2. But they did nothing else during Frankoff’s 4 2/3 innings, and when they finally chased him in the fifth, Kyle Schwarber struck out on three cutters away from Alex Young (the lefty against whom Schwarber launched a walk-off homer last month in D.C.).
“He’s got to understand, he hit a ball 400-whatever feet off him to win a game,” Martinez said. “He’s not going to get, probably, any balls in, unless they’re balls. So he’s just got to stay on the ball a little bit better. I thought he took some good swings, but one was over the ball and one was under the ball. In that moment, you’re up there trying to drive in some runs. And (Young) made some pretty good pitches.”
That sequence represented the last time the Nationals were in a position to make the game interesting. They wound up playing out the string, flip-flopping the script from Friday night’s blowout win with a blowout loss.
“It’s tough to lose games like that,” Soto said. “We all fight every at-bat, every time we go out there, every pitcher, trying to do our best. We give 100 percent. It’s not frustrating, because we all know we’re grinding, we’re all trying our best. It just doesn’t go our way.”