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Washington Nationals’ rotation contender Joe Ross impresses in Grapefruit League debut vs New York Yankees

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Joe Ross retired all six batters he faced in Wednesday’s Grapefruit League game against the NY Yankees...

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at New York Yankees John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Ross warmed up to take over for Max Scherzer when rain interrupted the Grapefruit League opener last week, but he never pitched when the deluge continued for over 90 minutes, and a decision was made to scrap the matchup with the Houston Astros.

Washington’s 26-year-old right-hander came into Spring Training as one of three starters in the mix for the fifth spot in the Nationals’ rotation, with manager Davey Martinez telling the assembled reporters in West Palm Beach, FL that he expected big things from Ross in 2020 after a 2019 campaign in which he showed flashes of being the pitcher the Nats thought he might be when they acquired him from the San Diego Padres in 2014.

Ross underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, and moved back and forth between the Nats’ bullpen and rotation over the last two years once he returned to the mound, but Martinez’s take late last season was that the righty’s future was as part of the club’s starting rotation if he’s able to return to the form he showed early in his career and in flashes since.

“This Spring for me was the Spring where I thought he’ll be back to the Joe Ross that we saw early in his career, and so far he looks like that guy,” Martinez said after watching Ross throw some early bullpen sessions.

“The ball is coming out really well,” the manager added.

“I know he’s working on different things with his mechanics, and repeating his delivery, so I look at Joe doing big things for us this year.”

A short arm swing in his delivery is one of the notable changes that Martinez mentioned.

“Very short,” Martinez said. “Right now he says he feels good. I know [Pitching Coach] Paul [Menhart] and I we’ll watch him and we talked about it, and there’s a whole lot of deception in there, and the ball just — all of a sudden it’s on you. Some of the catchers that caught him, they’re saying, ‘Wow, all of a sudden he lets it go and the ball is there.’ And it’s kind of nice, but we’ll see if he can take that into the game, and see how he feels.”

When he did finally get into a game on Wednesday afternoon in Tampa, Florida’s George M. Steinbrenner Field, where the Nationals took on the New York Yankees, Ross looked sharp, retiring all six batters he faced in a 23-pitch appearance in what ended up a rain-shortened 8-2 loss.

Ross and his manager were happy with the results.

“I loved everything about him,” Davey Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, after the game.

“He was under control. He threw first-pitch strikes. He threw the ball in when he wanted to. He got the ball elevated when he wanted to. He was really good.”

Ross said he was excited to get on the mound after the start of his Spring was delayed.

“It was a little frustrating, but luckily I stayed on schedule with where I was,” Ross told the MASN reporter.

“I’m glad I got this one out of the way. Unfortunately, it was a long bus ride, but it is what it is.”

Going up against a Yankees’ lineup that featured a number of major league regulars, Ross said, helped.

“I feel like there’s a difference between a team’s regulars and facing the Yankees,” he said.

“I think it maybe turns it up a notch as far as competition in-game. First outing, you want to work on some things. And then they step in the box and it kind of switches like that. It’s good to get a feel for how they’re seeing me, if I can execute some sequences and stuff like that. I think I did all right today.”

Will Ross be able to build on his initial outing and earn the fifth spot in the rotation come Opening Day? Will the righty be able to stay healthy and produce consistent results? It’s been the same questions for most of his career, but coming off a solid finish to the 2019 campaign, and two postseason appearances this past October (including an emergency start in Game 5 of the World Series), will he finally take the next step?