Joe Ross may have earned a critical role in a bullpen short on reliable arms. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

MIAMI — Friday didn’t hold much for the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park. Their offense was subpar. A sloppy sixth inning led to the Miami Marlins’ decisive runs. And the Nationals began a six-game road trip with a 3-2 loss to one of the worst teams in baseball. It was a lot to forget.

But it may have been the night Joe Ross truly became a reliever. And that may be worth looking back on one day.

“We had a great conversation,” Manager Dave Martinez said after Ross threw two scoreless innings in relief. “I told him he did an amazing job, and from here on out he will be used as more of a guy instead of a long man.”

Translation: A “guy” is someone Martinez could use in high-leverage situations in the seventh or eighth innings. A long man, the role Ross was slated to play, comes in to mop up lopsided results so the rest of the bullpen can take a breath. Ross’s quick ascension from one to the other could be a major development for a bullpen that has a major league-worst 7.59 ERA. The 25-year-old began the year as a starter with the Class AAA Fresno Grizzles, then joined the Nationals as a reliever April 7, then didn’t pitch from April 9 to Friday as Martinez tried to figure out his role.

He still wanted to be careful with Ross, who missed almost all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery in July 2017. He auditioned Wander Suero and Kyle Barraclough in big spots, while Trevor Rosenthal, who signed in October to be Washington’s setup man, continues to shake off a historically bad start. And he didn’t want to overwhelm Ross, who had been a starter for his entire career and never pitched on back-to-back days or taken the ball in a tight contest.

But that could change. On Friday, Ross inherited a two-out, bases-loaded jam and escaped it with a pop out to right. Then he got five more outs and held a deficit to one run. It was the kind of stabilizing performance the Nationals’ bullpen has searched for all season. From Ross, in mid-April, it got one.

“I’m all for it. I like to do as much as I can to help the team win in those shutdown innings that we need,” Ross said after Friday’s loss. “Our starters have been going really well, but I feel like late in the game, whatever happens, things kind of fall apart sometimes. But you know, I’m ready.”

There was always a good chance Ross’s stuff would play well out of the bullpen. He has a mid-90s fastball that can get up to 96 in short outings. His sinker can induce groundballs when needed. His sharp slider is a good tool if the Nationals want to avoid contact.

But it’s not just a matter of throwing those pitches at different points in a game. Transitioning from starting to relieving is more complicated than that.

For years, Ross was conditioned to pitch every five days, to build his life around that timeline, to begin outings in the first inning with the slate entirely clean. That allows starters to find a rhythm in a way other players can’t. Their season is like a metronome, ticking on schedule, telling them when to lift and long toss and lock in once or twice a week. Relievers don’t get that. They get the opposite.

These are what closer Sean Doolittle calls the occupational hazards of coming out of the bullpen. Relievers are asked to warm up and then sit down, then warm up again, then sit down until they are actually needed and have to get their arms loose quickly. Ross has observed the constant churn for two weeks, paying particular attention to 30-year-old lefty Matt Grace. Grace has appeared in 11 of Washington’s 18 games and needs to stay ready all the time. Ross makes note of when Grace begins stretching, how he stretches and how he throws before entering the game.

“I try not to be too disrupting, I guess, during the game,” Ross said. “I just use my eyes and pay attention.”

Soon, Ross hopes, he can use that to form his own routine. There is no guidebook to pitching on back-to-back days or in three straight games or for getting outs with the pressure cranked to high. That only comes with a feel that comes with experience, and Ross’s is limited. He gave up three runs in his first appearance of the season against the New York Mets on April 7. Then he pitched two scoreless innings of a 10-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on April 9. Then he rested, for an odd 10 days before impressing Martinez in the series opener against the Marlins.

The seventh and eighth innings have been he toughest for the Nationals, and Martinez had started to trust Suero and Barraclough there in recent games. The gap between their rotation and Doolittle remains a daunting one, and the manager is looking for any reliable options to bridge it. Ross has added himself to that list, at least for now, hoping to help solve a puzzle that sees another day.

“It’s kind of just like the late innings of a start when you run out of gas and have to get yourself out of a jam,” Ross said of pitching in high-leverage spots as a reliever. “Except you get to come in feeling pretty fresh. So it’s sort of like an advantage, at least for me. I look forward to it, and I like the competition of trying to do a job right away.”

LINEUPS

Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins, Saturday, 6:10 p.m.

Nationals (9-9)

Adam Eaton, RF

Anthony Rendon, 3B

Juan Soto, LF

Matt Adams, 1B

Brian Dozier, 2B

Yan Gomes, C

Wilmer Difo, SS

Max Scherzer, P

Victor Robles, CF

Marlins (5-15)

Curtis Granderson, LF

Martin Prado, 3B

Brian Anderson, RF

Neil Walker, 1B

Starlin Castro, 2B

Jorge Alfaro, C

Miguel Rojas, SS

Isaac Galloway, CF

Jose Urena, P

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