CHICAGO — For much of his professional career, Ross Detwiler has done everything the Washington Nationals have asked of him. The former first-round draft pick has fought through injury, made adjustments to his delivery and dealt with being shuffled back and forth from the minors to the majors at critical points in his development. He’s shown that he can get big league hitters out and that he can repeat the delivery that he worked to perfect after hip surgery.
The only thing he hasn’t proven is that he can pitch deep into games and continue to fool hitters once he faces them more than once through the lineup. That’s what plagued him Wednesday night in Chicago as Detwiler searched for his first career road victory and instead came up short in a 4-2 Nationals’ loss to the Cubs.
“It was just OK,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said in a blunt assessment of Detwiler’s third major league start of the season.
“This is a tough ballpark to pitch in. You leave the ball up, or you make any mistakes on the inside part of the plate, you’re going to get hurt. I give him a C-plus for his effort tonight. But the two ballparks he’s pitched in lately, I mean, you’ve got to be letter-perfect. You can’t make any mistakes.”
Detwiler has now taken the mound to start a major league game 22 times for the Nationals. Only six times has he been able to make it through six innings or more. Only once has he pitched into the seventh.
Wednesday, he needed 84 pitches to get through five. He allowed three runs off seven hits — including two solo home runs — and two walks. One of those hits came against pitcher Rodrigo Lopez after Detwiler threw him a belt-high changeup. Lopez hit it for a single to load the bases, but Detwiler was lucky to wriggle out of the jam by striking out Starlin Castro to end the inning.
With the Cubs leading 2-1, Detwiler also popped up a bunt in the fifth inning with one out and Jesus Flores at first base. Rick Ankiel doubled one batter later but the runners were left stranded on second and third as Danny Espinosa grounded out.
“We lost,” Detwiler said when asked to evaluate his performance. “It would’ve been a tie game if I could get a bunt down. The other things you can’t control. They’re professional hitters. I get a bunt down, we score a run there and it’s a completely different game.”
Perhaps it even becomes a game that Detwiler takes into the sixth or later. Instead, he surrendered a solo home run to Reed Johnson to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning to expand the Cubs’ lead to two runs.
Ryan Zimmerman extended his hitting streak to 18 games in the first inning. He ended up scoring the game’s first run all the way from first base after an error by Castro, but the lead only lasted for one inning. And Jayson Werth’s solo home run in the sixth simply cut the deficit to one, instead of cushioning what could have been a Nationals advantage.
In 22 starts, Detwiler has held opponents to a .220 batting average the first time through the order. That number jumps to .317 the second time around and a .368 on the third trip through. He has faced a batter for a fourth time in a game only once in his career.
He hit his five-inning plateau against the Cubs, just as he had done the start before when he allowed two earned runs in a loss to the Colorado Rockies. The Nationals have seen plenty of encouraging signs from the 25-year-old lefty, particularly increased velocity and a better changeup that pitching coach Steve McCatty has noted. Still, even Detwiler admitted getting deep into a game and “actually coming out with a win one time would help [his development], too.”
“He came up here two years ago and he was rushed,” McCatty said. “He’s still young. Left-handers have a tendency to come late. They mature late, they get comfortable and all of a sudden they really blossom. … Unless you’re that rare guy, the experience of learning how to pitch in the minor leagues is a real benefit. He’s been up and down the past few years but this year I see a better Detwiler.”
It’s a small sample size, but in 10 appearances as a reliever, Detwiler has held opponents to a .182 batting average and allowed two earned runs in 19 innings. As a starter in the majors, he is 3-11, while averaging 5 1/3 innings and allowing a .299 average against. His next opportunity will come Tuesday at Nationals Park against the Cincinnati Reds.
“The one thing that always keeps you from going deeper into the game is executing pitches,” McCatty said. “Now, I’m not saying that he did a terrible job of that, but five innings, 84 pitches, to me, that’s a lot of pitches. He’s just got to get more ahead in the count (and get) earlier contact.”