VIERA, Fla. -- A group of Nationals were on the way to the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., last month, for a game between the NBA's Orlando Magic and Golden State Warriors, when Jonathan Papelbon started talking to Joe Ross about throwing a splitter.Papelbon knew Ross had been struggling with
VIERA, Fla. -- A group of Nationals were on the way to the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., last month, for a game between the NBA's Orlando Magic and Golden State Warriors, when Jonathan Papelbon started talking to Joe Ross about throwing a splitter.
Papelbon knew Ross had been struggling with the development of his changeup and remembered how much it aided him as a young pitcher in Boston when Curt Schilling helped him develop a splitter.
• Spring:Tickets | Ballpark | 40-man roster | NRIs
"I figured if Schilling throws a splitter and he taught Papelbon to throw a splitter, I should probably try it at least one time," Ross said.
So Ross began incorporating splitter grips while playing catch and throwing a few during bullpen sessions before finally unleashing his new pitch for the first time in a game Monday. Among the 51 pitches he threw during the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Marlins, he estimated that he mixed in the splitter about five times. That included two in the first inning against Miami outfielder Christian Yelich, who was called out on strikes.
"It felt pretty good, as far as first time ever pitching in a game," Ross said. "Obviously, a lot of room for improvement. But I think if I can work on that and, say the changeup isn't there in a game, that will be a good alternative to try and rely on and not be so fastball, slider dominant."
Although Ross used it effectively against the left-handed-hitting Yelich, he said adding the new pitch to his arsenal has the potential to be more effective against right-handers.
Ross said he has had the tendency to "baby" his changeup against righties, trying to hit pinpoint location and avoid hitting anyone. The arm action on the splitter, however, will allow him to throw the ball without holding back.
And with an added pitch in his repertoire, it could give Ross an advantage as he competes to earn a spot in the Nationals' Opening Day rotation. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez own three spots in the rotation, but the other two are up for grabs between Ross, Tanner Roark -- who threw three scoreless innings Monday -- and veteran Bronson Arroyo.
"As far as last two spots, I guess anything can happen," Ross said. "So just trying to stay healthy and work on all that stuff, and especially that splitter. Hopefully that can be a big fourth pitch."
Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.