Ross completes eight innings as Nats shut out Giants (updated)

As their two aces departed early with injuries the extent of which aren’t entirely known just yet, the Nationals were left with no choice but to call upon their longtime No. 5/6 starters to pick up the slack this weekend.

Whether Erick Fedde and Joe Ross can continue to thrive under this new pressure for the long haul or not remains to be seen. Certainly, they need to prove they can do it every fifth day, not just once in a blue moon.

But for these 24 hours on South Capitol Street, there is no reason for the Nationals to be anything but overjoyed at what they got from the two not-so-young-anymore right-handers. Fedde returned from the COVID-19 injured list on Saturday to toss five scoreless innings and earn a win. And this afternoon Ross shut out the Giants for eight standout innings to lead the Nats to a 5-0 victory and a four-game series split with the owners of the National League’s best record through two-plus months.

Ross-Delivers-vs-PHI-White-Sidebar.jpg“These guys have stepped up, and it’s their time now,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “I’ve been here. They’ve had their struggles. Now they’ve got some confidence, and they’re pitching the way we envisioned them pitching. We’ve just got to keep them going.”

Ross’ 108-pitch gem today arguably was the best of his career. He had completed eight innings only twice previously (in 2015 and 2017), and in each case gave up runs. He had shut out the Phillies on three hits in 2016, but was pulled after 7 2/3 innings.

On this muggy Sunday afternoon on South Capitol Street, everything came together for the 28-year-old right-hander, whose career has been littered with glimpses of his full potential but has equally been beset by injuries, mishaps and plain old poor performances.

The Nationals couldn’t have asked for Ross to put it all together at a better time. With Stephen Strasburg (neck) on the 10-day IL and Max Scherzer (groin) possibly headed there as well, they are desperate for quality starting pitching. They got it from Fedde in the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader, and today they got it from Ross, offering some legitimate reason for optimism, at least in the short term.

“It feels good to go out there and be productive and give (the bullpen) the day off,” Ross said. “I don’t really take it especially critically on myself to have a longer outing when guys are out. But that’s how things went today. Hopefully we have them back and healthy again, because they’re our horses. We’re going to need them.”

A four-game series that saw the two clubs produce a bare minimum of offense - the aggregate score was 3-3 entering today’s finale - finally saw the Nats deliver more than a little output this afternoon. They got a pair of early homers from unconventional leadoff man Kyle Schwarber, they got a 4-for-4 game from Josh Harrison and they got a two-out RBI double from Starlin Castro.

For the second straight afternoon, Martinez had Schwarber leading off. And for the second straight afternoon, Schwarber responded with instant offense. His 407-foot homer to right-center on Johnny Cueto’s fourth pitch of the game gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead and duplicated his feat from the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader.

“The past couple games, yeah he’s looked natural,” Harrison said with a laugh when asked about his team’s new unconventional No. 1 hitter. “Given matchups and the way the game’s going, I don’t think anything’s out of the question. I’ve been part of some teams that have juggled lineups, and juggled that leadoff spot. I don’t think it’s anything that anybody here hasn’t seen before. Baseball’s a game that sometimes you’ve got to switch things up. Put guys in different spots, and make things happen. The past couple games, he’s gotten us off to a good start.”

Unlike the previous day, Schwarber wasn’t done after his leadoff homer. He came up to bat again in the bottom of the second, now with runners on second and third and one out. A fly ball would bring home another run. A single would bring home two. But a 426-foot blast off the facing of the second deck would bring home three, so he chose that path for maximum impact.

Impressive enough, but then consider where the pitch was that Schwarber hit: Way up out of the strike zone, 4.19 feet above ground. That’s the highest pitch the Nationals have hit for a home run since such things began to be tracked in 2008, according to Sarah Langs of MLB.com.

“I was able to look at it on the iPad when I came back, and yeah, it was a little high,” Schwarber said with a laugh. “It’s nice to know that you can get to balls up there. I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you can still take that swing on pitches that are in the zone, up at the top. I think that’s the biggest thing to take away there: Knowing you don’t have to really cheat on that pitch at the top of the zone. You can just take your normal at-bat and know that if it’s up, you can react to it.”

Just like that, a Nationals club that scored three total runs in the first 24 innings of this series had four runs on the board in the first two innings of today’s finale.

That proved more than enough cushion for Ross, who was in a groove early and never lost it.

The right-hander pitched around a one-out double by Mike Yastrzemski in the top of the first and then didn’t allow another baserunner until the fifth, a span of 12 consecutive batters retired.

Most impressively, Ross didn’t walk a batter. He kept his pitch count low, never needing more than 18 to complete an inning. For a guy who too often this season has been undone by one bad frame, this was an exceptionally welcome development.

“I just kind of felt comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think I had any walks. Just early outs and eliminating the 2-0, 3-0 counts just helped out.”

And as he walked off the mound following his 108th and final pitch of the day, the crowd of 21,569 stood and saluted Ross. They understood the path he’s taken to this point, and the significance of this particular start for the team at this particular time.

Now all they can do is hope there’s more of it to come.

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