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Washington Nationals' rotation: Do Nats stick with Doug Fister or Joe Ross when Stephen Strasburg returns?

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Washington Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg appears to be close to returning, so do the Nats stick with Doug Fister in the rotation when he does, or do they make the bold move of keeping Joe Ross in the rotation going forward?

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In his second rehab start with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, as he works his way back from a left oblique strain, 27-year-old Washington Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg struck out 11 batters in 5 ⅔ innings pitched on Monday.

"Five and two-thirds, 85 [pitches]. He gave up four hits, two runs, struck out 11. It was a good outing," Matt Williams told reporters in the nation's capital on Monday night.

"The plan going forward?" he was asked.

"We'll see how he feels," Williams said.

The reports from Chiefs' manager Billy Gardner, Jr. were positive too, with Gardner telling Syracuse.com's Lindsay Kramer that Strasburg was dominant:

"The ball was leaving his hand really well, around the plate, very few misfires,'' said Chiefs manager Billy Gardner Jr. "Outstanding changeup, outstanding breaking ball. I thought his command was a lot better this start. He hit his spots pretty good tonight. He located. His stuff was dominant. When he's on, he's tough to get to.''

Gardner said he had no information about the Nationals' plans for Strasburg's next outing, though he thought it was likely the right-hander would be returning to the majors.

"'I assume he would be, but I haven't heard anything officially,'" Gardner told Kramer.

"Command for his breaking ball was there. Changeup off the fastball was there and the fastball sat at 95, 96 and touched 98." - Matt Williams on Stephen Strasburg's second rehab start

"'Obviously we wanted to build his pitches up, which we did. That was a key, have him come away feeling good and being able to locate his pitches, command the baseball, which he showed us tonight.'"

Williams addressed the plans for the Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick's immediate future when he spoke to reporters before Tuesday night's win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"When you have eleven strikeouts you’re doing something right," Matt Williams said.

"It shows command for getting ahead in the count. We rely on the people that see him pitch, as well, beyond the stat sheet, but command for his breaking ball was there. Changeup off the fastball was there and the fastball sat at 95, 96 and touched 98. So that's all positive things for him moving forward. It means he's feeling good and he has no apprehension letting the ball go."

Strasburg was in the Nationals' clubhouse before the second game of four with the D-Backs, and he spoke about the second rehab outing.

"'I felt good. My stuff is there,'" Strasburg said, as quoted by CSNWashington.com's Chase Hughes. "'Just try to keep doing the same things and working on the stuff I’ve been doing. It’s going in the right direction.'"

Though he admitted to frustration with the way the season has gone, with two DL stints, and less-than-spectacular results, Strasburg said he was looking to get back to the majors so he could help his teammates.

"'I don’t think anybody’s going to be happy with it, but you just gotta try to pull from the positives. I think I’ve grown a lot from it and I’ll continue to do that. I want to go out there and help this team win some games.'"

Williams, in an MLB Network Radio interview this morning, talked about the plans going forward, which start with a bullpen session.

"He's got a bullpen session today," Williams said. "Last time out he was 85 pitches and five 2/3, so for all intents and purposes he's ready.

"We've got to get him through the bullpen today and make sure there are no lingering issues. He didn't feel anything last time out, which is a good sign.

"So today is the test. Get him a bullpen and make sure he's good coming out of it and then we can turn the horse loose and let him go."

"[Joe's] given us a chance to win every time he's gone out there, so that's important for us. Doug's got experience. Look back to last year, and 16 wins. That's pretty good." -Matt Williams on Ross vs Fister on MLB Network Radio

Once Strasburg passes that test, however, there's a decision that has to be made.

Does Joe Ross return to Triple-A Syracuse again, as he did last time Strasburg came off the DL?

The 22-year-old rookie right-hander is (2-3) in six major league starts with a 3.00 ERA, a 2.50 FIP in 39 innings over which he's held opposing hitters to a combined .218/.252/.317 line and been worth +1.0 fWAR.

Or do the Nationals make the difficult decision with veteran Doug Fister, the 31-year-old starter who has struggled to a (4-7) record in 15 starts and 86 innings pitched this season, over which he's been worth +0.1 fWAR, putting up a 4.60 ERA, a 4.59 FIP and a .293/.341/.471 line against, after a (16-6), +1.4 fWAR season in D.C. in 2014 in which he put up a 2.41 ERA, a 3.39 FIP and a .243/.280/.374 line in 25 starts and 164 innings?

"That's the ongoing discussion that we have," Williams told MLB Network Radio hosts Steve Phillips and Todd Hollandsworth.

"Joe is a very young pitcher," Williams said. "We know that. He's been great. He's unfazed when he walks out there. And he's given us a chance to win every time he's gone out there, so that's important for us. Doug's got experience. Look back to last year, and 16 wins. That's pretty good."

Between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, Ross has thrown a total of 115 innings this season, after throwing 121 ⅔ in the Padres' system in 2014 and 122 ⅓ in 2013 before San Diego traded him to the Nationals in this winter's three-team deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. How many innings will the Nationals let him throw this season?

Williams spoke to reporters, including MASNSports.com's Chris Johnson, before Ross went up against the Pittsburgh Pirates two starts back, about how they've managed the right-hander's innings this season.

"The managed innings are a function of his total, not taking him too deep into the season and pushing him from 120 to 185. That's not fair to him. And we want to look out for his health, too."

Can the Nationals, who are battling for a division title and currently second in the NL East, keep running Fister out there while he tries to sort things out?

Can they manage Ross at Triple-A and have him ready to replace Fister if the veteran can't get back on track?

New York Post writer Joel Sherman wrote this morning about Jayson Werth's status as the everyday left fielder now that he's back from the DL, wondering if the Nationals might make the bold move to start Michael Taylor in left once Denard Span returns from the DL and make Werth a reserve.

"[D]o the Nationals have the gumption in a pennant race to pull one of their cornerstone players from the everyday lineup?" Sherman asked, if Werth's results don't improve with more at bats?

A better question might be, do they have the "gumption" to go with Joe Ross over Doug Fister, a free agent after this season, if they decide that's what's best for the rotation going forward?

And an even better question might be whether the Nationals call up Trea Turner or... I'll stop.