Dusty Baker’s advice for Joe Ross heading into Thursday night’s start was simple. He told reporters earlier this week that he wanted the struggling, 24-year-old pitcher to stay focused, ignore all the talk of his arm slot and velocity, and pitch.
“Just don’t fight himself. Be natural,” Baker said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“And not try quite so hard. Just try less,” he added. “As a young pitcher, you’re trying to find out who you are. Are you a contact pitcher? A strikeout pitcher? Just pitch to the situation. It’s not like Joe’s a rookie, but he’s not a veteran, either.”
Ross, coming off a three-inning outing against the A’s in Oakland which saw him allow seven hits, two of them home runs, two walks, and seven runs total, six earned, talked after that start about not worrying about his spot in the Nats’ rotation, and worrying instead about getting a win.
Baker said after the loss to the A’s that there hadn’t been any discussion about moving Ross out of the Nationals’ rotation.
“We haven’t talked about it or even thought about it,” he said. “The game just ended, you know what I mean, so we’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and see.”
Part of going back to the “drawing board”, Baker explained before Thursday’s game, was finding consistency with his slider.
“Not a good one, a bad one, a good one, a bad one, a hanger, one in the dirt,” Baker said.
“The slider is one of his main pitches, so he’s been working on keeping it down and controlling that, but a lot of that starts with how relaxed you are in the first place.
“I told Joe that I remember Hank, I was talking to Hank Aaron and Hank would get all these hanging sliders and nothing sinkers and I’d go up there and the guy would be darting and dodging and stuff and I asked him, I said, ‘Why is that?’
“And he said, ‘Because when you get up there the damage is already done and you’re facing a relaxed pitcher.’
“A lot of times, the big hitters get those hangers because they really try to overthrow it, or they get tighter on him then they would be naturally, so I just told Joe that story and just try to be natural and not see who’s at the plate and just concentrate on throwing to the target.”
Ross got off to a strong start against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, tossing two quick, scoreless frames on 29 pitches, striking out four straight batters between the final out of the first and third out of the second.
He was up to seven straight O’s batters retired, with a 5-0 lead, and five Ks, after he struck Seth Smith out to end a 12-pitch third at 41 pitches overall, and Ross got two more strikeouts in the fourth, retiring the Orioles in order (10-straight) in a 13-pitch inning that left him at 54 pitches.
Three more Ks in a 13-pitch, 1-2-3 fifth left him at 10 Ks and 67 pitches, with 13-straight Orioles set down.
With two more Ks to start the sixth, Ross was up to six straight Ks and eight strikeouts from the previous nine batters he’d faced, setting a new personal career-high in Ks, and he stranded a two-out single that ended his streak of retired batters at 15-straight.
Mark Trumbo doubled to left on the first pitch of the seventh, and he scored two outs later on an RBI single to left by Joey Rickard that ended Ross’s shutout bid, 6-1, but he finished up a quick, nine-pitch seventh, at 91 pitches total.
He retired the first batter in the eighth, and Baker came out to get the ball from the right-hander, who left on a high note and received a standing ovation from the home crowd.
Joe Ross’s Line vs Orioles: 7.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 12 Ks, 93 P, 67 S, 8/4 GO/FO.
Joe Ross' career night condensed into one 30 second video... because we know you're busy people. pic.twitter.com/BBXzaE6gSf— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 9, 2017
What was working for Ross on the mound against the Orioles?
“I tried to create a good tempo, have a good tempo from pitch to pitch,” Ross said, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.
“Execute and keep the ball down. I kind of made an adjustment from the last couple starts. I felt good out there and we had a really good defense today, so that definitely helped out.”
What stood out for Baker from Ross’s outing against the Orioles?
“Probably his command,” Baker said after the 6-1 win.
“He was throwing his fastball down and away, followed by his slider in the same spot down and away, elevating when necessary, and he was calm, that’s what stood out.”
It was a big step for the right-hander, who was solid in his first start back from Triple-A last month, but struggled in back-to-back outings.
“It’s a big positive,” Baker said.
“He was real calm and we’re all proud of him and that’s the Joe Ross we’ve been waiting on.”
It didn’t hurt, the skipper said, that Ross had a 5-0 cushion after the first two innings.
“That always helps everybody, and we try to jump the other team early to give our pitchers some breathing room, it doesn’t always happen, but he got out of the early innings with a very low pitch count. I think he was averaging like 14 pitches an inning the first four or five innings, which is what you want.”
Even when he’s struggling, he never looks shook, so Baker was asked how he could tell that the right-hander was calm throughout the start.
“I could tell because you guys don’t see him in-between innings,” Baker explained.
“He was actually kind of — he was real loose. And we were kidding him because he had a couple uneventful at bats, and Jacque [Jones] and a couple of the guys even made him smile a little bit in-between.
“When you’re pitching well, when you’re getting ahead in the count, when your slider is working, then that helps lead to calmness.”