18 months removed from his last start, Joe Ross tasked with facing Dodgers

18 months since his last start, Ross tasked with Dodgers originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

A lot has changed since Joe Ross last started a regulation baseball game.

The Nationals’ right-hander’s most recent appearance for the club was Oct. 27, 2019, also known as Game 5 of the World Series. Since then, the Nationals have won a championship, the Houston Astros were exposed for their cheating scheme, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked its havoc and MLB has crowned a new champion in the Los Angeles Dodgers.

On Friday, Ross will return to the mound against those very same Dodgers, looking to help keep the Nationals afloat while they weather a COVID outbreak that sent nine players to the Injured List. Ross did make a few spring training appearances, allowing three earned runs over 9 2/3 innings (2.79 ERA) with eight strikeouts and two walks in Grapefruit League play.

“The last time — honestly, I would say it feels like it was like two — you could even say maybe like three years ago,” Ross said on a Zoom call after his first outing. “It feels like a long time. Spring Training games are one thing, but the last like real game was in the World Series. Which, even thinking back feels like a long time ago…It’s felt like a while, but I felt good today and it feels good to kind of be back pitching.”

Even after Ross opted out of the 2020 season due to health concerns, he entered spring as the favorite to win the No. 5 spot in the rotation over Austin Voth and Erick Fedde. Manager Davey Martinez declined to name an official fifth starter the last week of spring training, saying he wanted to see how they fared in their final outings.

Then, COVID struck. With both Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin on the IL, the Nationals may end up having started all three pitchers by the end of the weekend. But perhaps the most optimism surrounds Ross, who would’ve had the chance in 2020 — given he won the job out of spring — to make his first full season’s worth of starts since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017.

Injuries and strings of ineffectiveness have limited Ross to just one season of at least 100 innings. His best campaign was in 2016, when he posted a 3.43 ERA over 19 starts with 93 strikeouts and 29 walks. Since then, he’s accrued a 5.21 ERA while bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. Yet he’s still just 27 years old, signed for only $1.5 million this season with another chance at arbitration before hitting free agency after 2022.

The opportunity to prove himself begins with a bout against the Dodgers, who are already 5-2 on the year and tied with the Colorado Rockies for the fifth-most runs scored (44). Their lineup includes the likes of Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Justin Turner. Walker Buehler will be opposing him. If there was ever a team not to face for your first start in nearly a year and a half, it’s the Dodgers.

But the choice of opponent is out of his hands. Ross has a real chance to stick in the Nationals’ rotation this year. Putting up a strong effort against Los Angeles would be an excellent start toward solidifying his case.

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