As of mid-March, the Washington Nationals, or at least manager Davey Martinez, still said they thought of Joe Ross as a starter, in spite of the fact that the 25-year-old right-hander made five of his seven appearances in Grapefruit League action out of the bullpen.
Coming off Tommy John surgery, Ross is in what GM Mike Rizzo described in late 2018 as the organization’s “Year 1 post Tommy John protocol”, with the General Manager noting that the Nationals would control the pitcher’s innings, and hopefully, “... manage those innings correctly,” this season.
How would he be used though? That was the question Martinez was still entertaining as the end of Spring Training approached.
“It’s hard saying because of his injury, but I still really believe he can start. I really do,” Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.
“It’d be nice if we could get him a little bit stretched out right now and see where we are at.”
Ross, predominantly a sinker/slider pitcher, who has struggled to develop an effective third pitch, had put up a 4.01 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 2.45 BB/9, 7.86 K/9, and a .260/.319/.427 line against in 268 1⁄3 IP for the Nationals before Sunday, so there has been talk at times about whether he was ultimately better off as a hard-throwing reliever, allowing him to air it out and focus on the two plus pitches he has.
With the relief corps struggling out of the gate, the Nationals apparently decided to give Ross a look as a reliever, so they called him up from Triple-A on Sunday.
“I spoke to Joe and he’s a reliever,” Martinez told reporters in Citi Field before the series finale with the New York Mets.
“He’s going to come out [of the bullpen] and he’s going to pitch. I told him there are going to be some days when he comes out and just pitches one inning, and if we deem it necessary where he can pitch a couple innings it would be great, but he’s a reliever, and he’s going to pitch, and he’s all for it.”
The decision to bring him up as a reliever was made out of necessity, Martinez explained.
“For us, we wanted to get him stretched out and pitching a little bit,” Martinez told MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, “but the necessity is, and what he can help us do, is he can help us right now in the bullpen. And that’s where we see he fits.”
With an NL-worst 10.02 bullpen ERA after Saturday’s blow-up in the eighth inning against the Mets, and an NL-worst .376 BAA, 2.23 WHIP, and a .458 BABIP-against, the Nationals needed help.
Was bringing Ross up the right decision?
He got the call with a 12-6 lead in the ninth inning of the finale in New York and hit the first batter he faced, Jeff McNeil, with a 93 MPH full-count fastball, then walked Pete Alonso in a five-pitch at bat, and recorded one out, on a fly to deep right, before surrendering a three-run home run on a center-cut 1-1 changeup that Michael Conforto crushed.
With the score 12-9, Martinez went to the pen for closer Sean Doolittle, who wrapped things up. Ross threw 22 pitches total, 10 for strikes.
He averaged 95 MPH with his fastball, throwing 14 of 22 heaters, five sliders, two sinkers, and the changeup that left the yard according to Brooksbaseball.net.
What did Martinez think of the outing?
“For me it’s perfect to get him here and get him out,” the manager said. “Get him out there to get his nerves calm. He came out throwing 95 MPH, which is kind of nice, but he settled down and he threw strikes, and then he got hit, but I think Joe is going to be fine, I wanted to get him out there as soon as possible and it worked out that we got him out there today.”