The cheers were loud, and for good reason, while Joe Ross made his final walk to the dugout Tuesday night. He had done this six times already, after each of his six clean innings, and now exited at the center of a standing ovation from a scattered crowd at Nationals Park.
The fans appreciated his effort — one run in 6⅔ innings — but also recognized its continued significance for his team. When Ross pitches well, and for more than a few innings at a time, the Washington Nationals have yet another pitcher to lean on. That matters with Max Scherzer still on the injured list. That will matter when Scherzer returns, whenever that is, because Ross may soon be counted on for a handful of starts down the stretch.
He had looked incapable of handling that responsibility earlier this summer. A 3-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds provided further counterevidence.
“I’m just taking it day by day and staying confident and not getting down in a rut,” Ross said. “I feel like it’s easy when you go down [to the minors] like that, but it’s paid off and I’m feeling pretty good right now.”
It was Ross’s longest start since July 4, 2017, and home runs from Juan Soto and Brian Dozier helped turn it into a victory. It was his third straight start throwing five-plus innings and yielding one earned run or fewer. Before the seventh, when he allowed the Reds to score on a single that ended his outing, Ross had tossed 17⅓ consecutive scoreless innings. The Nationals came into this month with two question marks rounding out their rotation. It was a shaky way to start a pennant race. But Ross’s sudden consistency doubles as a major lift and a case for him to stick around.
When the 26-year-old was recalled from the minors on July 21, and secretly met the team in Atlanta, he was an emergency plan. Austin Voth was about to hit the injured list with biceps tendinitis. Scherzer was dealing with bursitis in the scapula under his right shoulder blade — one of three injures he has been diagnosed with in the past month or so — and Washington needed a short fix at the bottom of its rotation.
So Ross flew in from Class AAA Fresno, was on the mound at SunTrust Park the next day and did little to quiet those pitching depth concerns. His first outing was fine. His second was much worse, when he entered in the third inning and yielded six earned runs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Erick Fedde wasn’t faring much better. The Nationals shopped for a fifth starter at the trade deadline. But when a deal fell through, and three relievers were the only additions, Manager Dave Martinez stuck to his message: Fedde or Ross had to step up.
They both responded and now have a combined 0.90 ERA in five August starts. But Ross has really stood out. When Scherzer returns — and the ace threw a simulated game Tuesday afternoon — one of Ross or Fedde will remain in the rotation. Ross’s latest bid started with an eight-pitch first inning that ended with a double play. He pumped his right fist once it was completed, and then he was off.
“He’s been through a lot. Now he feels good. Now he feels confident. Now he’s throwing 90 to 100 pitches, plus,” Martinez said before alluding to Ross’s Tommy John surgery in July of 2017. “You see Joe come back and be that pitcher from before he got hurt. It’s really nice.”
Ross’s sinker hovered between 95 and 96 mph all evening. One of them, to the red-hot Aristides Aquino, started on one side of the plate and wound up on the other. He threw 45 in all, complemented by 25 sliders, and that balance led to 12 of his 20 outs coming on the ground. Victor Robles helped him out of a jam in the sixth when he threw out Jose Peraza trying to go from first to third on a single. It was Robles’s ninth outfield assist of the season, a Nationals club record, and was finished off by Anthony Rendon’s acrobatic tag.
Ross lasted another three outs before exiting to those big cheers. He kept his head down as he walked into the dugout. Hunter Strickland finished the inning, getting a grounder to third, and that polished off Ross’s best line in a long time. Wander Suero got the first two outs in the eighth, and Daniel Hudson recorded a four-out save to give the Nationals a chance to sweep the Reds on Wednesday.
“What he’s done the past few starts, he’s filling up the zone, you see him kind of getting that swagger, that confidence on the mound,” Dozier said of Ross. “Like he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
After Ross finished the fifth with three quick groundouts, his scoreless inning streak was up to 16⅓ . That was the longest for any Nationals pitcher this season, and it only grew a bit more by night’s end. That’s on a staff with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez and closer Sean Doolittle. That was even more remarkable when considering how it once seemed as if Ross couldn’t throw 16 pitches without the other team crossing the plate.
He didn’t click as a reliever in April and May. He gave up a combined nine earned runs in his first two appearances of July. Then he found something, then found it again, then was on the mound Tuesday to prove that that something hasn’t gone anywhere — at least not yet.