WASHINGTON -- The Nationals optioned right-hander Joe Ross to Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday, and they promoted right-hander A.J. Cole to the Majors. The move comes as a surprise, despite Ross's uneven start to the 2017 season, as he posted a 7.47 ERA over three starts.
"Joe wasn't Joe," manager Dusty Baker said. "That was it in a nutshell. His usual hard sinker wasn't sinking the last couple starts, and his usual sharp slider wasn't sliding. It's a tough decision to send him back, because we're going to need Joe."
After Ross missed two months last season with a shoulder injury, Washington had him begin the season in Syracuse for what the club said was an effort to control his innings total and navigate him through a full season for the first time in his career.
Ross was promoted to the Majors on April 19 for a start against the Braves at SunTrust Park, and he pitched well, allowing three runs in seven innings with seven strikeouts. His next start came on a chilly night at Coors Field and he struggled, allowing five runs on seven hits with two walks in 4 2/3 innings. While his velocity dipped in that game, he and Baker chalked it up to the conditions. However, Ross was not sharp in his last outing on Sunday against the Mets. He allowed five runs on seven hits and a walk, and he was removed after four innings.
"I talked to him. He said he really hadn't felt like himself," Baker said. "Not hurt, but he hadn't felt like himself since last year."
Baker said the Nats believe Ross is healthy, but he has struggled keeping a consistent arm slot this year. Pitching coach Mike Maddux designed a throwing program for the righty, and he is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday for Syracuse to help him get back on track.
Baker was not ready to name the pitcher who would take Ross's spot in the rotation. Cole seems like the logical choice to replace Ross in the rotation, even though he has struggled during his time in the Majors, with a 5.29 ERA in 11 career games (nine starts). First, Cole will be placed on the suspended list as he serves the remainder of a five-game suspension, which resulted from his ejection on Sept. 25, 2016, at Pittsburgh after throwing behind Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang. Cole served the first two games of the suspension at the end of the '16 regular season.
The Nationals also have right-hander Jacob Turner as an option. Turner was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training this year, and he impressed enough to stick around as organizational depth. He pitched well -- allowing three runs on six hits and six strikeouts in six innings -- during a spot start in Colorado last week, filling in while Stephen Strasburg was on the paternity list.
"Don't know yet," Baker said. "We'll see how many guys we use during this series."
• Stephen Drew took full batting practice and fielded grounders at each of his infield positions prior to Tuesday's game against the D-backs, an encouraging sign as he recovers from his right hamstring strain. Baker said Drew will need to go on a Minor League rehab assignment before rejoining the team.
"He's been out a long time," Baker said. "It's just a matter of how long it's going to be."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.