“He just wasn’t very good today,” Martinez added with a slight shake of his head.
“Thought he might settle down,” he said of Joe Ross, three days before that Fedde start, and the postscript is that Ross never did, allowing seven runs in 4⅔ innings to the Los Angeles Dodgers and giving the Nationals even more reason to look for rotation help at the trade deadline.
On Friday night, Martinez was offered a break from his lament. Ross allowed just one hit in 5⅓ innings. He walked a season-high five batters, all within the first 11 he faced, but worked around the base runners to keep the Arizona Diamondbacks in check. He benefited from good defense behind him. He even flashed some of his own, ranging backward to collect a tapper with his bare hand, then firing to first from where Anthony Rendon would usually play.
It all laid the foundation for a combined one-hit shutout, 3-0, with Roenis Elías, Hunter Strickland, Fernando Rodney and Sean Doolittle complementing Ross out of the bullpen. The win was sullied by a potential injury to Elías, who hit for himself in the seventh inning and may have tweaked his hamstring while running to first base. But that Ross pitched well, and turned in five-plus innings before departing, should not be swept aside.
Washington needs someone — anyone — to click in the back of its otherwise strong rotation. The current options are Ross, Fedde and Austin Voth, who’s working his way back from shoulder tendinitis and could throw a bullpen session as soon as Sunday. The Nationals considered trading for a fifth starter before Wednesday’s trade deadline, according to a person with knowledge of their plans, but a deal fell through. So until Max Scherzer returns from the injured list, where he remains with a mild rhomboid muscle strain below his right shoulder blade, Ross and Fedde have to fill two rotation spots.
Before Ross faced the Diamondbacks, that was too big of a task. After he did, Martinez’s outlook had changed, for the moment.
“I told him, ‘You pitched great,’ ” Martinez said. “ ‘Just pitch like that, compete, keep us in ballgames — that’s what we need.’ ”
“Just stayed down in the zone. My sinker had good depth. My fastball was down and away,” Ross said of what went well in his second start of the year. “Occasional change-up and some sliders. My stuff was good tonight."
The Nationals aren’t asking for much in the fifth spot, especially with Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez highlighting the staff. What they need, really, is a solid performer who gives the offense a chance to compete, and doesn’t entirely tax the bullpen. A fair expectation is around five innings and two to three runs allowed. Anything better than that, like Ross’s outing Friday, would be a bonus.
Ross, 26, has had a tough season to this point. He began it as a starter with Class AAA Fresno, was quickly called up as emergency bullpen help, then struggled as a first-time reliever. He has an 11.17 ERA in 18 appearances out of the bullpen, ending that experiment and allowing Ross to build back up to a starter’s workload in Fresno. He got his first chance in Atlanta two weekends ago and pitched fine before getting bullied by the Dodgers on July 27 after replacing the Nationals’ “opener.”
Martinez had discussed possible changes for Ross, including tweaks to his motion and eliminating his slider in favor of a more traditional curveball, seeming to put the pitcher’s nine-year pro career at a crossroads. The manager also felt that Ross was stuck between his four-seam fastball and his sinker, and had to decide what kind of pitcher he wants to be. Ross, at his best, pounds the lower half of the strike zone with a power sinker. It sets up his biting slider and a change-up that has been developing for years. This was all explored in bullpen sessions with pitching coach Paul Menhart ahead of Friday’s start, and the results were encouraging.
A slightly quicker delivery helped Ross keep his pitches down. Against the Dodgers, he threw 31 four-seam fastballs and 13 sinkers. Against Arizona, he threw 19 four-seam fastballs and 41 sinkers, returning to the sinker-slide combo that once made him a fixture of Washington’s future. He masked early command issues by throwing his best pitches in big spots. And his frustration, evident after recent starts, was replaced by an easy smile once the work was through.
“It feels good to get that one out of the way,” Ross said, with a laugh, when asked if it felt good to get his first win of the season. “It’s August 2.”
That may be much later than Ross would like, but the most important step remains. Now he has to do it again.
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