First, he hoped Ross and his family were healthy. Second, he did some simple math: Without Ross, once the front-runner to fill out the Nationals’ rotation, the fifth starter would be Fedde or Austin Voth. This was an opportunity. This was good. But it seemed odd to say that with Ross not coming to camp. It felt inappropriate to be excited during a global pandemic.
Fedde illustrates the riddle of how to talk and feel about baseball in 2020. Nothing is normal. The regular season is expected to start in empty ballparks. Coaches are all wearing masks. America’s pastime returns amid an ongoing fight with a virus that has taken more than 133,000 American lives.
And yet in Washington, in cities across the country, players such as Fedde have a chance. A 60-game schedule could provide a critical jumping-off point. Despite everything, their careers roll on.
“This is obviously something I didn’t expect,” Fedde said in an interview Monday. “I think people who are successful in life take advantage of opportunities. I want to be successful in what I do. So I’m trying to do that with the smartest mind-set in a tough situation.
“Is that weird? Yeah. It’s always going to be weird. But it’s the situation we’re in.”
Ross and Fedde have been linked for more than a half-decade. Fedde is only three months older. The Nationals drafted Fedde in the first round in 2014, then received Ross in a trade with the San Diego Padres in December of that year. Ross established himself as a back-end starter before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017. Fedde, in the mix right behind him, bounced between the majors and minors while battling command issues.
They stayed connected for the next three seasons, each getting a share of shots. Fedde was sharp in the early months of 2019. Ross struggled out of the bullpen. They both hit their stride in August. Ross was tapped for the World Series roster and started Game 5 in place of Max Scherzer. It all made the pair closer.
It was competition, sure, but there was comfort in that. Fedde and Ross have the same job. They could commiserate about minor league travel. They usually shared a workout program, threw together and, in spring training, had neighboring lockers. A lot of jokes passed between their folding chairs. A lot of advice, too.
“It’s nice to share a situation with someone, even if you’re sort of going against them,” Fedde said. “I’ve always had that with Joe.”
This spring, before the pandemic began, the Nationals were choosing among Ross, Fedde and Voth for the final spot in their rotation. Ross appeared to have the inside track after that World Series start. It was clear that the runner-up would become a long man out of the bullpen. Manager Dave Martinez maintained that both roles were up for grabs.
Fedde, though, had a technicality working against him. Because he has a fourth option year, Washington could shuttle him between the majors and minors without the risk of losing him to another team. Ross and Voth, on the other hand, are out of options. For that reason, Fedde fully expected to start the year in the minors.
Then baseball shut down for several months. Then Ross opted out.
“I already figured it was a chance to better my situation. That’s how I was preparing,” Fedde said, adding that he faced live hitters once a week during the break. “Rosters would be bigger; someone could get hurt or sick. You just had to be ready, and I thought there’d be room for me to prove myself. But Joe’s decision changed a lot for me.”
They recently caught up with a “few quick texts,” as Fedde put it. Fedde wanted to see how Ross was doing in California. He said Ross seemed happy and “at peace” with the tough choice.
Ross’s parents and sister work in the medical field, and Fedde can relate. His mother is a pharmacist at a Las Vegas hospital. Because she has been on the front lines, Fedde couldn’t see his family as much as he wanted to this summer. While he never considered opting out, the risks hit close to home.
To limit crowded spaces and the chance of the coronavirus spreading, the Nationals have had pitchers train in shifts. Fedde hasn’t seen a handful of his teammates yet, so he isn’t feeling Ross’s absence. His goals are the same as usual: push past five innings, sharpen his secondary pitches, command his fastball and avoid walks. Then make the rotation.
As in March, whoever doesn’t earn that spot will join the bullpen. Fedde has tried relieving and wants to show he can start full time in the majors. He knows that, with just 26 career starts, he has plenty of room to grow. He also knows chances are limited, that there’s always someone coming, that the next few months could lift a career that hasn’t bloomed.
But how he talks about that now, even how he thinks about it, is different. This opportunity is a constant reminder why.
“I mean … I don’t know. … It’s going to be weird without Joe here, without that usual battle,” Fedde said, his mind racing as it did on that flight from Las Vegas. “I’m really going to miss that guy.”
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