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Aided by Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Ross adds a split-fingered fastball to repertoire

Joe Ross is working on a split-fingered fastball, taught to him by Jonathan Papelbon. (Photo by John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

VIERA, Fla. — Joe Ross, Jonathan Papelbon and several other Nationals were on their way to watch the Golden State Warriors play the Orlando Magic a couple weeks back, when Papelbon presented Ross with a suggestion. Most coaches and players in the Nationals organization know Ross has been trying to hone a change-up since he came up last year. Papelbon suggested he try a split-fingered fastball, not instead of the change-up, but as another change of speeds, a different look.

“He said that was a big pitch he learned from (Curt) Schilling when he was in Boston,” Ross said. “I thought if Schilling throws a splitter, and teaches Papelbon to throw a splitter, I should probably try it.”

Ross said he threw the splitter about five times during his 2 2/3 innings in Monday’s 7-4 Grapefruit League win over the Miami Marlins. He was scheduled for three innings of work, but Dusty Baker had to get him with two outs in the third after a few seeing-eye singles and a Daniel Murphy error ran his pitch count high and let two runs score. Ross struck out four in his outing, walked a batter, and allowed four hits, none struck particularly well.

“I think it took me a batter or two to kind of get in sync on the mound, I was kind of rushing a bit at first,” Ross said. “After that, I felt pretty good. Fastball was good for the most part. I was hitting spots well. Slider was a lot better…than the first outing for sure.”

After Ross left the game, Papelbon came to ask him how the pitch felt. The 22-year-old had only thrown it playing catch and in a few bullpens. Still, Ross thinks it can be a useful pitch, because he tends to “baby” the change-up against right-handed hitters. The grip of a split-fingered fastball steals velocity and creates movement, so Ross can, to paraphrase him, throw the (heck) out of it without worry. The grip will take care of the rest.

“I have pretty big hands,” Ross said. “So as for having control and not having it fly out of there, it felt pretty good.”

Tanner Roark followed Ross with three scoreless innings, and has now allowed no runs and five hits while striking out six in five spring training innings. Ross admitted that while Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez are probably locked in at the top of the Nationals rotation, he, Roark, and others are likely jockeying for the other two spots.

“As far as the last two spots, I guess anything could happen,” Ross said. “I’m just trying to stay healthy and work on all that stuff, especially that splitter. Hopefully that can be a big fourth pitch.”

Papelbon, who had been away from the team this weekend for what Dusty Baker called a “family emergency,” pitched a perfect ninth to earn the save. The Nationals committed two errors in the game — one by Murphy and one by Stephen Drew — both in innings in which the Marlins scored runs. Drew’s error victimized Felipe Rivero, who allowed two runs on three hits and struck out a batter in his inning.

“The only thing we didn’t do that well was our defense,” Baker said. “Defense is about timing, as well as hitting is. A lot of times, getting your steps right, getting your rhythm right to go down, and that’s what spring training’s for.”

Anthony Rendon went 2 for 2 with an RBI. Jayson Werth singled home a run. Clint Robinson hit a two-run homer then drove an RBI single the other way. Pedro Severino went 2 for 2 with two runs scored. Because of their efforts, as well as a scoreless inning from Oliver Perez, the Nationals moved to 5-1, tied for the best record in the Grapefruit League.

“It just tells me that we’re pretty deep,” Baker said. “No matter who we put in there, we want them to expect to win. And if we don’t win in spring training, then it’s like, it’s only spring training.”