And Ross had been solid for the Nationals through two appearances. He’d been even better than that. He had begun his season with 11 scoreless innings. He, Max Scherzer and Erick Fedde had propped up a rotation that is without Stephen Strasburg (on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation) and Jon Lester (coronavirus-related IL) and has gotten far less than expected from Patrick Corbin. But Ross was bullied by the Cardinals after blanking them for six innings at Busch Stadium last week.
The result, again, was a taxed bullpen and an offense that couldn’t do much. The Nationals (5-9) rallied for two runs in the fourth and three in the sixth. The scoreboard, though, was already heavily tilted in favor of the Cardinals (8-8). Since April 13 in St. Louis, Strasburg allowed eight runs in four innings, Corbin allowed nine earned runs in two innings, then Ross couldn’t keep the Cardinals in the park. Twice in that stretch, including Monday, infielder Hernán Pérez has mopped up in the late innings against the Cardinals. Washington’s starters have a major league-worst 6.24 ERA.
“It’s disheartening sometimes, but it’s still early,” Manager Dave Martinez said of the rotation’s performance. “And I know that this isn’t the first time we’ve gone though something like this. I know things will turn around.”
Ross cruised through the first with two strikeouts on his slider. His sinker touched 96 mph. The second was fine, too, aside from Paul DeJong homering on a well-placed sinker off the inside edge of the plate. Then came the third, fourth and fifth.
Only one of the Cardinals’ first seven hitters had reached base. But the next 10 went for a single, a sacrifice bunt, a two-run homer for Tommy Edman, a solo homer for Paul Goldschmidt on a low-and-inside change-up, a groundout, a strikeout (ending the third), a hit by pitch, a walk, a single and a walk, in that order. The following batter, Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, laid down a two-strike bunt that scored DeJong. The Nationals trailed 6-0 in the fourth.
“Just wasn’t really executing pitches, leaving fastballs up, getting hit hard and making mistakes,” Ross said, providing a succinct and complete summary of his start. “Just got to be better with location.”
The offense made noise in the bottom of the fourth, with Josh Bell’s double setting up a pair of runs. Juan Soto, who had walked in front of Bell, skipped in on a wild pitch from Flaherty. Bell scored on Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly. Yet Ross couldn’t keep the Cardinals from restoring their lead. DeJong chased him with a towering grand slam to left in the fifth. Ross walked three and struck out five. As he ambled to the dugout, and the crowd rustled with frustration, the Nationals were buried by a handful of misplaced pitches. And it was easy to count them up.
Edman’s third-inning homer, for example, came on a middle-away sinker in a 3-0 count. That’s Ross falling behind — something he rarely did in his first two outings — and becoming too predictable. Hitting Dylan Carson with a 1-2 sinker in the fourth was a sign of poor control. It put the leadoff batter on base instead of finishing him in a pitcher’s count.
Then there was DeJong’s second homer, the backbreaking grand slam, which came off a 93-mph fastball at the top of the zone that was supposed to be a low pitch after Martinez intentionally walked Carlson to set up a double play. From there, Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper, Kyle McGowin and Pérez were needed for 4⅔ innings out of the bullpen.
“We haven’t had starters go deep; we haven’t gotten any length out of our starters,” Martinez said. “So our bullpen right now, once again, man, those guys come in and they did a great job for us again. But they’re getting taxed. They’re pitching way, way too much. We definitely got to keep an eye on these guys, or we won’t have a bullpen.”
It could have just been a bad night for Ross. Those happen. The early struggles for Strasburg and Corbin, who starts Tuesday, are certainly more distressing for the Nationals. Combined, they are on contracts worth $385 million over 13 years. Stress usually matches the investment.
But the scope of these rotation issues, and Ross joining in, is troubling nonetheless. Perhaps it was an omen that the season began with Ronald Acuña Jr. smacking a leadoff, first-pitch homer off Scherzer at Nationals Park. Or perhaps omens are silly, a bit of tired juju, and the situation will right itself soon. Ross’s next challenge is to contain his lapses and rebound against the New York Mets this weekend. All of a sudden, much rides on whether he can.