MIAMI — The conversation happened almost two years ago now, but one mention of it and Ross Detwiler remembers exactly where he was and what was said.
He vividly recalled sitting across the desk in the manager’s office at Triple-A Syracuse and lamenting to Randy Knorr what he felt was essentially bad luck.
Knorr stared back at him, somewhat incredulous.
“That’s like the third one in a row that, ‘Nothing’s gone right for you,’” he told Detwiler. “Isn’t it time to change something that you’re doing? Instead of just waiting for stuff to go your way?”
As Detwiler prepares to make his third start Wednesday in a season that already has seen two strong outings from the left-hander, he chuckles now at their chat. But he also acknowledges its importance in getting him to this point.
“He didn’t quite say it in those words,” Detwiler said of Knorr, who said as much himself. “A few f-bombs in there and all that. But from that point on, I stopped waiting for things to go right and started making things right.”
In name, Detwiler is the Washington Nationals’ No. 5 starter. He embraces this fact, saying he’s more than content to get his job done and then fade into the background for the other four days of the week. The media and the fans, they clamor for Stephen Strasburg, for Gio Gonzalez. That’s fine.
“I don’t need any media attention, really,” Detwiler said. “I’m just a fifth starter. I go out there and pitch and nobody bothers me very much. It’s kind of nice.”
But when you’ve allowed just one earned run in your first 13 innings of work this season — or you include four scoreless innings in the World Baseball Classic, and six innings without an earned run in a must-win game of the 2012 National League Division Series — you could make an argument that you’re treading into elite waters.
You could at least acknowledge what most in the baseball world have: that on plenty of other teams, you’re no No. 5 starter.
But Detwiler doesn’t.
“I’ve never been on another team,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “This is it.”
The truth of it is that Detwiler may not be disappearing for much longer.
Since the Nationals moved Detwiler back into the starting rotation for good in June, he has posted a 2.97 ERA in 121 1/3 innings of work in the regular season and playoffs.
Relying almost exclusively on his fastball, either a two-seam version that sinks or a four-seam version with which he can pitch in on hitters, his ground-ball percentage is at the highest it’s been in his major league career. The same goes for his infield fly ball percentage.
“I want to get beat with my best if I’m going to get beat,” Detwiler said, explaining the fact that he threw 93.3 percent fastballs in his previous start and 90.1 percent in his first one.
“I think striking people out, there’s definitely a time and place for it. For me, it’s a little overrated. I don’t want to throw three strikes, five pitches or whatever it is. I want to get you out on the first or second pitch. I want to go deeper into a game. … There comes a time where you don’t want to only go five. You see all these guys they call the best pitchers in the game and they’re going seven, eight, nine innings each time out with consistency.”
There was a time where Detwiler’s pitch counts would soar close to 100 in the sixth inning. In his first start this season, which came on nine days of rest, he was at just 82 pitches after six innings of work. In his last one, he needed just 90 to get through seven.
“That’s maturity as a pitcher, not as a person,” said Knorr, now Washington’s bench coach. “To not let the game get away from you and continue to still pitch. He’ll make a pitch and they’ll hit and he knows now if I make a better pitch I could get out of this inning, instead of saying, ‘[Shoot], I’m going to throw it harder’ or whatever.”
Detwiler will have another chance to continue what’s been an impressive start to the season when he faces the Miami Marlins on Wednesday. Chances are they’ll see a lot of fastballs. If Detwiler’s first two starts of the season are any indication, chances are they’ll struggle.
“I’ve seen a maturation process right in front of us,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I like where he’s at, and he’s still growing, still learning.”
NOTE: Outfielders Denard Span and Bryce Harper were both out of the Nationals’ lineup Wednesday as they recovered from what they hoped was a 24-hour stomach flu.