Nationals fans are witnessing a "pitcher in transition," GM Mike Rizzo says of Joe Ross, who's coming off two dominant starts, his best MLB outings since he returned from Tommy John surgery.
This is a refrain fans heard from Rizzo this year about reliever Trevor Rosenthal, another Tommy John recipient who never regained the command that had once made him an All-Star closer in St. Louis. Washington had to eventually cut bait with Rosenthal, who's since signed on with the Detroit Tigers, a 34-78 club that can afford patience with him. But Ross may really be regaining his command.
The Nationals had an embarrassment of riches when Ross arrived via trade along with Trea Turner (then, just a 'player to be named later') in Dec. 2014. The Nats already had the best rotation in baseball – Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister – by the time Ross made his Major League debut with them in June 2015.
Ross added yet another threat, starting his career off by going 5-5 with a 3.64 ERA with 69 strikeouts to just 21 walks in 2015. He'd pitch to a 12-10 record with a 3.52 ERA in his first two years.
Things started to unravel for Ross in 2017, as his 1.222 WHIP in 2015-16 jumped to a 1.466 that season, and his ERA spiked to 5.01. It was announced in mid-July 2017 that Ross would undergo Tommy John surgery, and it's been a long road back for him since.
Ross has made 21 appearances, mostly in relief, for the Nats in 2019, his first full season back from surgery, while bouncing between the big leagues and Triple-A Fresno. It's mostly not gone well. Ross was 0-3 with a 9.85 ERA, a .361 batting average against and two blown saves in two opportunities.
But Ross seemed to turn a corner on Washington's latest west coast trip, holding opponents scoreless in consecutive starts against the Diamondbacks and Giants, respectively, despite allowing seven walks to eight strikeouts. Opponents batted just .108 and managed only four hits between those two starts.
"(Nats pitching coach Paul Menhart) and Joe have worked really, really hard the last month or so about tweaking Joe's delivery," Rizzo said. "Obviously he's a hard, sinking fastball, slider type of starting pitcher. Did some tweaks in his delivery, kind of changed a little bit of his presentation on the mound and where he stands on the rubber, and gotten him to get the ball in the lower part of the strike zone, which is his bread and butter."
As the Nats await Max Scherzer's return, a Ross resurgence – if that's what this is – couldn't come at a better time for a Nats club embroiled in a pennant race.
"A guy who's, again, coming off the Tommy John, his velocity has been there and his stuff has been there," Rizzo said. "Now he's kind of refining his location. I think you see with the tweaks that they've made and the location that he's getting that sinker to, I think you've seen kind of the byproduct of better mechanics and better location on some really, really good stuff.
"So we're happy and really upbeat about where he's at. Not only for us going forward this year, but for the future, cause we've always felt that this guy's a big part of our rotation down the road, and he's kind of showing the way he looked before the Tommy John surgery that we were so excited about."
Speaking of Scherzer, Rizzo is optimistic his ace is close to returning from the Injured List.
"He's a huge part of our team and the rotation, obviously, and we're gonna get him back out there as soon as humanly possible," Rizzo said. "You know, Max knows his body well, and so when he's ready to pitch and throw some bullpens and kind of finish his progression to return to the mound, we want to run him out there as soon as we can. We're not gonna push him and try and overstimulate him and make him move too fast."
"We're gonna be careful and cautious with him, but with Max, it's hard to pull him back, and when he's ready to pitch, believe me, we want him on the mound," he continued. "But when he comes back, we want him here for the long term, and we're going to be cognizant of that and make sure that he's ready to go and not kind of feel anything when he's pitching.