As the ball cracked off Michael Martinez’s bat and bounced through the right side of the infield, Ross Detwiler never took his eyes off it. He watched Bryce Harper gather it. Watched him unfurl his body and send the ball rocketing toward home plate.
He watched Sandy Leon apply a perfect tag to a sliding John Mayberry Jr. He realized in that moment just how lucky he was getting. He realized that the Nationals’ defense was saving him from a potentially explosive second inning, getting him one out closer to another zero and putting them well on their way to a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on Thursday night.
He had one thought: Enough.
“I kind of looked inside myself and said: ‘You know, everybody’s trying really hard out here,’” Detwiler said. “‘And I’ve had a lot of baserunners.’ It really made me settle down at that point.”
Settling down meant playing to his strengths. It meant attacking the zone and being the type of left-hander he’s shown in so many flashes in years past and often this season. It meant allowing just one more hit and only two more baserunners until his night was done.
“You could see he had great movement on his fastball,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who could not praise his pitcher enough and used his hands several times to demonstrate the type of shiftiness he was seeing out of Detwiler’s fastball.
“It’s like you start realizing what kind of stuff you have and you don’t have to overdo it,” Johnson said. “If he comes inside [with his sinker], it’s kind of coming back over the plate. That’s just some awfully good stuff. And he’s starting to realize that. He’s using it as a weapon.”
It was the kind of switch that Detwiler has been trying to learn to flip for years — and the kind that, since a move back to the starting rotation at the end of June, he’s been learning to flip with authority.
On Thursday, that was seven scoreless innings, with three hits, two walks and three strikeouts. It was setting down the final 14 batters he faced on a muggy D.C. night, avoiding a sweep at the hands of the National League East-worst Phillies, and announcing — once again — that he finally is where he belongs.
“I know I’m going to be starting here now,” Detwiler said, his career path to this point having taken so many routes to the rotation that was not always such a certainty. “I think it’s just falling into a routine. That’s when I get comfortable, when I can fall into my routine. It makes it a little easier.”
Detwiler’s stage could’ve easily been stolen Thursday night.
He could’ve let the Phillies fluster him and given them a window toward sweeping the series.
The return of Jayson Werth to the lineup for the first time in 75 games could’ve easily taken Detwiler’s spotlight. Werth, who missed the last three months with a broken left wrist, was 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI.
Even Adam LaRoche — who sent his 20th home run into the second deck in the bottom of the second inning to “break the ice,” as Johnson put it, against Cole Hamels — could’ve been the star of the day.
But when Johnson sat down at his post-game press conference and a reporter asked about both of those two veterans, Johnson was not interested. “I was real proud of Det,” he said, changing the subject.
Since the 26-year-old was moved back into the rotation on June 24, he’s averaged six innings per start and has a 2.55 ERA. He’s reached the seventh inning four times in that stretch. Detwiler had accomplished that only four times in his previous 38 starts before then.
“I think he got that breather there [when he went to the bullpen from May 26-June 23],” Werth said. “Things weren’t really going his way and [Chien-Ming Wang] got a few starts and I think that kind of [hit him]: This is where you want to be.
“You get opportunities, you want to make the most of them. You don’t want to let them go, and I think that when he got the second opportunity I think that kind of hit home for him. He’s stepped up his game from there.”