WASHINGTON -- From the moment Joe Ross emerged from the dugout and made his way down the right-field line to begin stretching about a half-hour before game time, the sold-out crowd came alive. The 43,910 fans who packed Nationals Park had come expecting a slightly different bill -- a star-studded pitching matchup between Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole -- but it seemed they had decided they were going to try and will Ross through this emergency start anyway.
As Ross warmed up in the bullpen, the crowd serenaded him with chants of “Let’s go, Joe! Let’s go Joe!”
Earlier in the day, Ross found out he was being handed a near-impossible task. Scherzer’s neck spasms left him nearly immobile and unable to start Sunday night, leaving Ross to take the mound to start this crucial Game 5 of the World Series, facing the most prolific offense in baseball and perhaps in MLB history with the Series deadlocked. Considering the circumstances, Ross performed admirably, spurned by a pair of two-run homers in his five innings of four-run ball, even though he was outdone by Cole in a 7-1 Nationals loss.
“He had to process all of that stuff, two to three hours before the game starts,” Nats reliever Sean Doolittle said. “He went out and he attacked. He didn’t shy away from anything. He didn’t walk guys. He wasn’t behind in the counts. He had a couple calls that didn’t go his way, but he stayed with it. Four runs, we still feel like we’re very much in the ballgame. I’m proud of him for the way that he stepped up and gave us a chance to win.”
Ross was given a heads-up about Scherzer’s uncertain status the night prior, but he still didn’t know for sure whether he would make the start until Sunday. It wasn’t until he received a phone call from pitching coach Paul Menhart around 1:30 p.m. ET -- followed by a text message five minutes later from Scherzer, who said he wasn’t feeling great -- that Ross, 26, knew he was going to get the ball for the biggest start of his career.
Then, it was time for Ross to remember the teachings of one of his rival Little League coaches, Coach Beeman, who reminded his young charges to “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
“So, that’s kind of the approach I take this whole playoffs so far,” Ross said. “And it worked out enough for me to be active on the roster now and then be able to go out there and pitch.”
In reality, Ross had spent the past few weeks preparing for something like this.
Even though Ross did not appear on the postseason roster in any of the Nationals’ previous playoff rounds, he continued to throw diligently, working on a mechanical tweak to his lower half to help maintain his velocity. He played catch, threw bullpen sessions, played catch on flat ground, long tossed, anything he could do to stay busy. In the days between the end of the National League Championship Series and the start of the World Series, Ross threw a simulated game, which was as much to keep the Nats' hitters sharp with a long layoff as to prepare himself.
“I could not be more proud of him for staying ready for this opportunity,” Menhart said. “I’m just very proud of him, extremely, because he could have just said, 'Bump it, I’m just going to stop throwing and call it a year.' [No], he stayed in shape, got the opportunity, and I thought he did a tremendous job.”
Since his appearance on the final day of the regular season, Sept. 29, however, Ross had only pitched once, a two-inning relief stint in Game 3 on Friday night. That outing helped calm the nerves and excitement of pitching in the World Series, but it also added to the challenge of navigating through baseball’s best lineup.
On Sunday, Ross allowed four runs on five hits -- including a pair of two-run home runs -- while walking two and striking out one in five innings. The first home run came in the second inning, when Yordan Alvarez struck a 2-1 fastball down and away to left-center field to hand Houston a 2-0 lead. Ross allowed the other in the fourth inning, when Carlos Correa smashed a 2-2 slider to left field. Correa laid off an 0-2 slider that appeared to hit the outside corner of the plate, which was called a ball, to stay alive. He homered four pitches later.
“I feel like, as far as baseball goes, something small happens and then it seems like, later that at-bat, always something big follows up,” Ross said. “Unfortunate that's how it went, but nothing I can do about it now."
Now, once again, the Nationals find themselves on the brink of elimination. They knew entering Game 5 that one of the three final games was going to be started by someone other than Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but that still made for an ominous environment on Sunday night, even as the crowd waited and hoped for their underdog to come through.
“I definitely noticed them kind of roaring as I went to the field, which was pretty cool,” Ross said. “I would say probably louder than any previous start that I’ve had.”