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Washington Nationals’ Joe Ross wants the 5th starter’s spot in the Nats’ rotation...

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Joe Ross made three starts last March in Spring Training, but he hasn’t been on the mound for a real competitive game since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series.

Joe Ross made three starts in Spring Training last year, before the baseball world shut it all down in mid-March, and the 27-year-old, five-year veteran opted out of playing once MLB’s 60-game COVID campaign started back up in July, so the last time he’s been on the hill for something other than a Grapefruit League game was back in October 2019, when he took the mound for Game 5 of the World Series.

“It is funny. I thought about that before. That’s — pretty wild to think about even now still,” Ross told reporters when he spoke for the first time since arriving in West Palm Beach for the start of Spring Training 2021.

“I guess I had some Spring Training games, it does almost seem like an afterthought, like they didn’t really happen because Spring Training got shut down so quickly, but it’s almost like [Game 5] being the last real game, that’s like what I can most recently think back on, so I feel like that same kind of adrenaline, and kind of intensity as far as pitch to pitch importance has kind of stuck with me a little bit. I think it’s kind of helped with my mental aspect as far as being on the mound and even in the offseason bullpens working on executing pitches and thinking like, ‘If you don’t execute that pitch and you leave it over the middle, so-and-so is probably going to park that one in the bleachers somewhere.’ So it kind of gives me a little bit of extra perspective on fine-tuning when I’m trying to do some work.”

“But it is kind of a funny thought, my last real game probably being the biggest game of my career, hands down.”

Ross underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, then returned to make three starts in the big leagues in 2018, and made 27 appearances, nine starts, in 2019, posting a 5.48 ERA, a 4.59 FIP, 4.64 BB/9, and 8.02 K/9 in 64 innings pitched, (with just two appearances including the Game 5 start in the postseason for the eventual World Series champs that year).

Nationals’ catcher Yan Gomes, who’s been behind the plate catching Ross for 16 games, all in 2019, said he thought the sinker-balling right-hander seemed to find something once he returned to the mound following Tommy John.

“I think there was a major turning point in Joe [in 2019] towards the middle of the year,” the veteran catcher told reporters on Saturday, “where he kind of found himself a little bit.

“And it’s still been something that we’ve still been talking about, from just being aggressive to the zone, because he has that easy delivery and the ball jumps out of his hand, and once he gains that confidence back we’re excited to see what he can bring again.”

Ross said he was excited for the opportunity to claim the fifth spot in the 2021 rotation with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and newly-signed Jon Lester the top four in the nation’s capital.

“Definitely still the goal,” Ross said, though he stressed he wouldn’t let talk of a competition in Spring Training change his approach. “I think approach as far as Spring Training, I mean, I guess it’s a competition of sorts, but I’ve always been one more to just focus on myself, and progressing from outing to outing, whether it’s bullpens or live BPs or whatever it is that we’re working on, so just kind of staying within myself and taking the minor victories every day whether it’s finding something with the breaking ball or feeling more confident with the changeup, things like that, where I’m progressing and I feel like if I can do those and I stay on top of my stuff, the end goal is to make the team, but I feel like if you think about that too hard on Day 1, obviously I already put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think that just adds more than there needs to be.”

What is he going to have to do to convince manager Davey Martinez to name him the fifth starter in the Nationals’ rotation come Opening Day?

“He threw the ball well yesterday, really well,” the manager said after watching Ross’s first throwing session of the spring.

“Our concern is with — sitting down with [new pitching coach Jim] Hickey — is [Ross] didn’t pitch last year, he had no volume. But we have to be very careful.

“I know it’s been two years since he had Tommy John, but we want to keep him healthy.

“With that being said, the beautiful thing is we have [an Austin] Voth and we have [Erick] Fedde, so it could be a combination of the three of them. We don’t know yet. We’ll see how Joe gets through Spring Training, how we can build them up, but I like all three of these guys at any given point. They’re all going to help us at some point, I know that, but we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Ross said that in spite of the fact that he hasn’t pitched in competitive action in a while after taking last year off, he’s approaching this spring like any other ramp-up to the start of a 162-game season.

“I would say the biggest thing is probably just kind of pacing myself as far as live BPs and stuff like that, as far as effort, because I think I mentioned before, I think the adrenaline is probably going to be through the roof once I do get a batter or someone in there other than Yan [Gomes] in there,” he said.

“So just kind of being mindful of that and then the normal, just build-up as far as innings and stuff go, but just listening to my body and kind of not getting overly excited with being back and things like that.”