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Washington Nationals’ Joe Ross returns after opting out of playing in 2020’s COVID season

Joe Ross opted out of playing in 2020’s COVID campaign, but he’s back at it this spring, trying to earn the fifth spot in the Nationals’ rotation...

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Earning a spot in the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation was Joe Ross’s goal going into Spring Training 2021, after the 27-year-old made the decision to opt out of playing in 2020.

“Definitely still the goal,” Ross said early this spring. “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.”

Ross’s catcher, Yan Gomes, expressed confidence in what the sinker-balling right-hander brings to the Nats’ rotation mix, while acknowledging that they’d have to build him up a little more carefully after he had Tommy John surgery in 2017, got limited work in 2018, and had an up-and-down 2019 before taking the year off last season.

“Yeah, no absolutely. I mean, we’re going to obviously have to see how taking a year off or a year and a half off is going to feel like,” Gomes told reporters.

“I’m sure it feels somewhat foreign to be back on the mound and facing guys, but I’m sure he put his work in, from getting live at bats or anything like that, but I think there was a major turning point in Joe [in 2019] towards the middle of the year, 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.”

“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,” Davey Martinez said early this spring.

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

After taking their time building him up, Ross’s first start of the spring after work in bullpens and live batting practice sessions, was set for Monday afternoon.

What were they looking to get out of him?

“Joe is going to go hopefully one-plus, get him up to about 30 pitches,” Martinez said as the manager and his club prepared for Monday’s matchup with the New York Mets in West Palm Beach, FL’s FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Ross got 1 23 innings in, giving up a run on one hit, walking one batter, and striking out three before he was done for the afternoon.

“I felt good,” Ross said when he spoke with reporters once he was done for the day.

“I guess I wasn’t as jittery to be honest, as I was expecting myself to be,” he added.

“Probably helped that I had about three lives BPs prior to today, so probably knocked that out after about one of two.

“I felt pretty good. Stuff was good. I was kind of missing a little bit up in the zone with fastball early on, tried to make that adjustment.

“And then changeup was pretty good today, so pretty happy with that.”

It did take some time to knock off the rust early this spring, Ross acknowledged, but at this point he said he feels comfortable on the mound.

“I feel pretty fresh,” he said. “I threw I think 40 pitches today, which was probably about what I’ve been throwing the last two live BPs or so, bullpen maybe. So I feel fresh. I feel ready to go.

“I probably could have gone maybe another 20 pitches had I obviously gotten out of the [second] inning.”

Ross gave up a one-out walk and single in his second inning of work, and the one run he did allow scored on a sac fly that made it a 2-1 game in the Nationals’ favor at that point.

Luis Avilán took over for Ross at that point and stranded the one runner he inherited.

“He looked very comfortable,” Ross’s manager said in assessing the outing in what ended up a 9-5 win for the Nationals. “He looked really good. Talked to him and he was happy to be back out there. It’s been a while. Almost probably a year since he’s been there.

“But he threw the ball well. We’ve still got a long way to go, but for the first outing facing another team, he threw the ball really well.”

The next step for Ross?

“We’ll keep building him up,” Martinez explained.

“But like I said, he looked really, really good. I think he had like — what was it — 40 or 39 pitches. So we’ll try to get him up to 50 in his next outing.”

In an ideal world, the Nationals would like to have Ross lock down the fifth spot in the club’s rotation, but as Martinez said after seeing the righty-hander go for the first time this spring, Ross is going to have to earn the spot.

“I haven’t [given] Joe a definitive [word] if he’s going to be the fifth starter. [Erick] Fedde threw the ball a lot better today. [Austin] Voth has thrown the ball well. But you know, we definitely — I think if push comes to shove, if [Ross is] throwing the ball well, we can do different things. With that being said, it’s a long year, and he missed a year, so we definitely got to keep an eye on him, keep an eye on his innings, but as you know, throughout the course of the year, you’re going to need multiple starters to finish out the season, so I just want him to break camp healthy, and then see where we go from there.”