Ross Detwiler got everyone talking five days ago. In a dominant six-inning performance as a tough-luck loser, Detwiler showed more than just a glimpse of the first-round talent the Nationals saw when they selected him four years ago. Finally he made it past the fifth inning and touched 95 on the radar guns. This was the guy the Nationals had been hoping to slot into their major league rotation, the guy they’d seen only sparingly as he bounced around the system.
He wasn’t that same guy Monday night in A 4-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. For much of it, he was better.
And yet, with two outs and two men on in the sixth inning, Detwiler threw a 3-2 pitch, a changeup at 86 mph that landed high and outside on center fielder Chris Young. He took his walk to first base. Suddenly the bases were loaded, Detwiler’s shutout was in serious jeaopardy — as was the Nationals win — if he couldn’t buckle down and get the inning’s final out.
His manager thought about going to the bullpen, where Henry Rodriguez was warm and ready to go.
“Then I said, ‘No,’” Davey Johnson said. “‘I want to see what he’s made of right here.’”
It took him two pitches to coax Paul Goldschmidt into a grounder to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Detwiler walked off the mound looking like the weight of everything that seems to surround each of his starts — expectations, implications for his future and, of course, that night’s win — were lifted off his shoulders. The four-run cushion, provided by Jayson Werth’s third three-run homer of the entire season in the fourth inning, would be enough.
“I got myself into that jam by walking the guy,” Detwiler said. “I can’t be walking people when it’s 4-0… I just got lucky that there was a ground ball and Zim made a good play on it.”
He’d surrender a solo home run to Henry Blanco to open the seventh inning — and then a single to pinch hitter Sean Burroughs — to officially end his night and blow his scoreless outing. But that was a minor detail in an otherwise big picture evening for Detwiler. These are not audition starts to him — whether it’s for his next start or next year’s rotation — but if, for argument’s sake, they were auditions, Detwiler would be making a strong impression.
His velocity has been better, touching 94 mph with his fastball Monday night and dropping into the mid-to-high 80s with his changeup. His delivery has been cleaner and he’s still progressing a in a lot of areas. He’s working on a cutter-slider pitch with pitching coach Steve McCatty, and on getting his breaking ball to come in slower but with more rotation. He’s also found more conviction in his sinking fastball, a “heck of a pitch,” as Johnson put it — taking his cues from one of the king sinkerballers in Chien-Ming Wang.
“I think I’m throwing more quality sinkers than I did in the past,” Detwiler said, also attributing much of that effectiveness to making two of his last four starts in Colorado and at Wrigley Field — two unfriendly parks to pitchers.
“(Those parks) force you to keep the ball down or else just a fly ball gets out,” Detwiler said. “I think that’s definitely a big stepping stone for me. It taught me that I need to keep the ball down.”
Detwiler pitches the day after Wang in the Nationals rotation, which means the left-hander is responsible for charting Wang’s pitches. It’s an exercise that helped him realize how well Wang does with, mainly, one strong pitch. It helped him realize he has his own weapon and it wouldn’t be so bad to use it every now and then.
“It’s funny,” Detwiler said of watching Wang. “Every hitter knows what’s coming, but he still gets ground ball outs. Location, conviction, he drives the ball down through the strike zone.”
Detwiler was one out away from what would have been just his second career start that lasted seven full innings. He put together 6 ⅔ — nothing to be ashamed of against the National League West-leading Diamondbacks, even if they have lost six straight, and he helped the Nationals improve to 62-64 with their fifth win in their last seven games.
“I just think overall he’s done a real nice job starting so far,” McCatty said. “He’s doing all the things he needs to do. The stuff is there. Part of the learning process is getting out there and pitching… Now he’s making pitches and he’s seeing, ‘Hey, I belong here.’”