A.J. Cole posts solid outing against Braves

April 11, 2018 GMT

A.J. Cole walked purposely off the pitcher’s mound and glanced briefly at the Nationals bullpen, holding his glove in his right hand as he approached the first-base dugout.

The Washington right-hander accepted congratulations from coaches and teammates with one out in the top of the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon, his day finished after allowing a walk to Nationals nemesis Freddie Freeman.

Cole, 26, replaced by lefty reliever Matt Grace, may have been pitching for his spot as the No. 5 starter in a talented Nationals rotation. After being bombed for 10 runs in less than four innings April 2 by the Braves, the Florida native responded by allowing just two solo homers in 5 and 1/3 innings against Atlanta.

“I just went out with a game plan,” Cole said of his bounce-back outing. “I worked on stuff I needed to work on.”

In all he gave up three hits with five strikeouts and two walks while throwing 76 pitches 47 for strikes in a game eventually won by the Braves 5-3 in 12 innings at Nationals Park.

“I felt pretty good. Today was pretty good; just two (bad) pitches,” said Cole, wearing a light T-shirt and jeans with a silver necklace while standing near his locker. “Solo home runs ... they are not devastating. They are not (as bad as) three-run homers.”

The Nationals were so enamored with young pitcher Cole that they took steps to acquire him not once but twice in less than three years.

He was drafted in the fourth round out of high school in 2010, turning down a chance to play at Division I power Miami.

“A special arm for a high school kid,” said Paul Menhart, the minor league pitching coordinator for the Nationals. “A unique advanced (approach) to command his fastball.”

Cole was traded to the Oakland A’s after the 2011 season but then came back to the Nationals in a deal before the 2013 campaign.

“One thing we always loved about A.J. and part of the reason we got him back was his no-pulse attitude on the mound,” Menhart told The Washington Times on Wednesday before his start. “You never know what the score was when he pitched. Some could construe that as not caring. But he has a unique ability to slow the game down.”

Cole made his big league debut with Washington in 2015, pitching in three games with one start and posting an ERA of 5.79.

He spent most of 2016 with Triple-A Syracuse but also made eight starts for Washington, going 1-2 with a 5.17 ERA. The Florida native pitched in 11 games, with eight starts, last year for the Nationals and was 3-5, 3.81.

Cole could be moved to the bullpen by the Nationals at some point this season.

Other possible starters for Washington include veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who was signed late in spring training and has been pitching in Florida to prepare for a possible summons to Washington.

Another option is young righty Erick Fedde, who threw five scoreless innings Saturday while allowing four hits for Triple-A Syracuse.

Former big league pitcher Menhart was the pitching coach for Double-A Harrisburg in 2013 when Cole spent part of that season in the Eastern League. The two were also together at Triple-A Syracuse the following yearwhen Menhart was the pitching coach of the Chiefs.

Cole came up through the minors as a starter and has had to pitch out of the bullpen at times in the majors.

“It is a tough position to be in,” Menhart said. “What have you done for me lately; (you) learn on the fly so to speak.”

Craig Stammen is one pitcher who made the adjustment, Menhart noted of the former Washington pitcher now with San Diego. Stammen came up through the Washington system as a starter and then became a key member of the Nationals bullpen before an injury stalled his career in D.C.

Cole didn’t get the win Wednesday but he may havedelayed a possible move to the bullpen.The soft-spoken Florida resident had one of his best outings since he went a career-high seven innings in a start in Baltimore two years ago.

The lanky righty walked out of the Nationals clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, with a backpack over one shoulder and a jacket over the other. For now he may be around for at least one more start.

“He pitched really well; attacking the strike zone,” said first-year manager Dave Martinez, who didn’t speculate on his status. “We talk with him about that all of the time. He is learning; that is good.”