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Nationals calling A.J. Cole up to make MLB debut vs Braves in Atlanta

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With Max Scherzer sidelined with a sprained right thumb, the Washington Nationals are bringing prospect A.J. Cole up to make his MLB debut tonight against the Atlanta Braves in Turner Field. Matt Williams made the announcement after last night's game.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The addition of Max Scherzer on a free agent deal this winter, pushed Washington Nationals' 15-game winner Tanner Roark to the bullpen.

So what did it mean for some of the top pitching prospects?

What about A.J. Cole?

Nats' GM Mike Rizzo was asked this winter if the 23-year-old right-hander, who finished his 2014 campaign at Triple-A Syracuse, might end up working out of the bullpen in the majors this season? Cole, Rizzo said, is, "... great starting prospect and a guy that you're going to hear from in the very near-future in Washington."

"He's got, for me, he's got the ultimate pitcher's body. It's long and then he gets out front and the ball explodes out of his hand." -Matt Williams on A.J. Cole, Spring 2013

Cole was coming off an impressive season in the organization, which saw the 2010 Nationals' 4th Round pick -- who was traded to the Oakland A's before the 2012 campaign and reacquired a year later -- go (6-3) with a 2.92 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 15 walks (1.90 BB/9) and 61 Ks (7.73 K/9) in 14 starts and 71 IP at Double-A Harrisburg before moving up to make eleven starts for the Syracuse Chiefs, for whom he was (7-0) with a 3.43 ERA, a 4.48 FIP, 17 walks (2.43 BB/9) and 50 Ks (7.14 K/9) in 63 IP.

In Spring Training action with the Nats, the lanky 6'4'' righty impressed second-year skipper Matt Williams.

"He is, for me, growing into his body," Williams said.

"A young player, he's tall, he's got great leverage and he's getting stronger, certainly, by the year. This year he came into Spring Training looking great. Of course we know about his fastball and his curveball. Depending on the day he can touch mid-to-high 90s with his fastball and a curveball with feel to go with it.

"We're going to get him with our pitching people and kind of straighten out his delivery and I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us..." - Mike Rizzo on A.J. Cole after reacquiring him

"That's unique in that he's got the feel and velocity at the same time. Certainly a very promising prospect for us and still very young, so we've got to make sure we progress him the right way and I know he wants to pitch and loves taking the ball, that's for sure."

Cole was reassigned to minor league camp in mid-March, and he started the 2015 campaign back at Triple-A, where he put a 2.40 ERA, a 3.93 FIP, one walk (0.60 BB/9) and 10 Ks (6.00 K/9) in three starts and 15 IP.

He was set to make his fourth start on Monday, but with Scherzer a question mark after injuring his thumb last week in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals held Cole back a day in case they needed him to make his major league debut in the second game of three in Atlanta.

Before Monday night's game against the Braves in Turner Field, Williams told reporters that Scherzer wasn't going to make his scheduled start, though he was hopeful the 30-year-old right-hander would only miss one outing.

"I would think that before another five days he'd be okay to go," Williams said.

"But there's progression there too. We've got to get him on a bump and let him throw and throw all of his pitches and make sure he can do all of that. So that may happen tomorrow."

"He came out and played flat-ground catch today," Williams continued. "Felt fine. Threw his fastball 100%, but it's still a little tough gripping the slider for him. So we'll make sure he's good to go when he's good to go. So, I wouldn't think that it would be a full skip until his next rotation turn, but we can slot him in wherever we'd like to."

As Williams explained it to reporters, the choice for the second game with the Braves came down to Tanner Roark, if the righty and his bullpen mates weren't taxed in the series opener (since he isn't stretched out) or Cole.

After the Nationals' 8-4 loss, Williams was asked again if a decision had been made?

"A.J. Cole will start for us tomorrow," he said. "We'll have a corresponding roster move tomorrow."