Amid fifth-starter battle, Nats keep eyes on Ross

March 7th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the Nationals boarded a bus for split-squad action in Port St. Lucie, manager Dave Martinez stayed back at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He wanted to get an in-person look at in his home start against the Marlins.

“He’s pitching so well,” Martinez said prior to the Nats’ 2-2 tie. “I want to put eyes on what he’s doing really well so that if anything does go awry, I can actually see. I know we’ve got video and stuff, but for me, I’m very visual and I like to watch and see how he’s doing.”

Ross drew attention early in camp with a perfect 0.00 ERA in his first two starts. On Saturday, the 26-year-old right-hander reached the mid-90s while tossing 57 pitches (37 strikes) over 2 1/3 frames. Ross fought through a 24-pitch first inning, during which he felt like he was rushing his mechanics. He struck out one, walked three and allowed three hits.

“Second inning, I felt like I made an adjustment and was a little bit closer on the zone more consistently,” Ross said. “Curveball wasn’t great today but [I] still kind of battled. … Overall, just feel good with how I feel on the mound and stuff like that. But still got to work on tinkering some things and making the in-game adjustments.”

Martinez noticed a slower tempo compared to Ross’ first two starts, which pitching coach Paul Menhart talked about with him following the outing.

“When he gets that slow, it’s almost like his body, just his mechanics are a little off,” Martinez said. “We told him, ‘Next time out, don’t overthink everybody, don’t overanalyze. Just go out there and pitch.’”

Ross is entering his sixth Major League season with the momentum of a strong World Series run. He pitched two scoreless innings out of the bullpen in Game 3, and he made the start in Game 5.

This year, he is vying for the fifth-starter spot with and as the Nats weigh how to round out their pitching staff in Spring Training. Ross spent time as both a starter and reliever in 2019, and he found more effectiveness during the regular season in the rotation. He went 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA in nine starts compared to 0-2 with an 11.17 ERA in 18 relief appearances. He is now looking ahead to a strong 2020 season, three years removed from Tommy John surgery in ‘17.

“[There were] a lot of things last year that we tried to do with him, like limiting his innings because of the injury. I think we’re beyond that now," Martinez said. "I think he understands who he is and who he can be. He’s in a good spot right now. He’s throwing the ball well, consistent. But it’s still early.”

With just over two weeks left in Spring Training, the Nationals will continue to watch Ross' progress.

“He’s been really, really good,” Martinez said. “He’s attacking the strike zone. His breaking ball is good. His slider’s getting a lot better. His changeup’s actually been improving. I just want to make sure we keep him right here, right now and kind of continue to build him up.”