NEW YORK — A week ago, as he was coming off the mound in Washington following one easy inning of work, Ross Detwiler shook manager Davey Johnson’s hands and thought he misheard the manager tell him it was a fine tuneup for his next start.
He spent the next six days feeling like he was on scholarship as the Nationals opened the season in Chicago. He savored his first Opening Day on a major league roster and waited for his turn — a familiar feeling. This waiting was different, though, because he knew this wait would end every fifth day.
When he did take the mound on a crisp Tuesday night in New York, it had been 10 days since his last start in spring training. It was worth the wait. In five scoreless innings, Detwiler was exceptional. Staked to a one-run lead before he ever took the mound, his season began with back-to-back Mets’ hits. Fifteen of the next 16 batters were then set down as the Nationals beat the previously undefeated Mets, 6-2.
Dating back to the end of the 2011 season, Detwiler has thrown 18 ⅓ straight scoreless innings.
“This is just really picking up where he left off,” Johnson said. “Totally in command.”
Of the Nationals’ three homegrown starters, Detwiler was the first drafted. Two years before Stephen Strasburg and 61 spots before they selected Jordan Zimmermann in the 2007 draft, the Nationals took Detwiler No. 6 overall.
All these years later, after working through injury, inconsistency and the mental grind that comes with riding the shuttle back and forth between the major and minor leagues, Detwiler looked around the diamond at Citi Field and felt like he belonged. As he followed the ball around the infield after each of his six strikeouts, he recognized the faces around him, the catcher calling his game. He knew he’d arrived.
“It’s just really comforting knowing that the same faces are out there,” Detwiler said. “Before, I’d say I was just filling in. Now, especially being on the Opening Day roster and being a starter, definitely feel like I belong here a little more.”
Two years ago, when Detwiler came into spring training looking primed for a rotation spot after a strong minor league season and a string of solid September starts, he began to get that feeling. But the pain in his right hip wouldn’t go away and surgery for a torn labrum followed.
“Then, I kind of had to reset everything and start all over again,” he said.
That reset was one that took longer than he probably anticipated. It was one that, even after he was fully healthy, still required him to mentally adjust his game. A year ago, a single like Ronny Cedeno’s in the first inning, one that bounced its way through the left side of the infield and forced Detwiler to work through the inning with no outs and runners on second and third, would have been his undoing.
But Tuesday night, Detwiler responded by forcing the heart of the Mets lineup into two swinging strikeouts and a pop to short. Inning over. Six runs of offensive support later via multi-hit days from Ian Desmond (who hit a leadoff homer to open the game), Wilson Ramos (2-for-4) and Jayson Werth (4-for-5), Detwiler became the first Nationals starter to earn a win this season.
“I think that definitely would have gotten to me,” Detwiler said of Cedeno’s single. “But one thing [bench coach Randy Knorr] did say last year was, ‘That ball doesn’t get through if it’s not up. It’s right at somebody or it doesn’t even get to the infield dirt.’ That really made me kind of say, ‘Hey, you know, I can get the ball down here. I can do something better to make a better pitch and they’ll get out.’”
Before they took the field, Ramos told Detwiler that he wanted to use his sinker often against the Mets. Ramos had caught Detwiler several times during the spring and noticed the pitch had more movement on it, more break than in the past. He was getting ground balls with it, and he felt it could be very effective against the Mets lineup.
“Today, let’s use the sinker more as an out pitch,” Ramos told him.