The question going into last night's game with the Atlanta Braves: Why not just start right-hander Tanner Roark, the 2014 15-game winner who was pushed to the bullpen when the Washington Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a 7-year/$210M deal this winter?
With Scherzer nursing a thumb injury, didn't it make sense to just go back to Roark for a spot start?
In an MLB Network Radio interview this morning, Nats' skipper Matt Williams explained the thinking that went into going with 2010 Nationals' 4th Round pick A.J. Cole in the second game of three in Turner Field instead of Roark.
"Well, first of all for Tanner, Tanner hasn't been more than two, a little over two innings, all year long," Williams said, "so our thought process in that is that we don't want to just do a bullpen game there and have our whole bullpen involved. We don't have an off-day for some days now, so with Max [Scherzer] being down for a little while, we decided to go with A.J. He had been starting, it was his regular turn, and he'd been up to 85 or 90 pitches."
Cole, 23, made two starts and four appearances with the Nationals this Spring, giving up nine hits, four home runs, four walks and six runs total, four earned in 10 ⅔ IP, holding opposing hitters to a .225 BAA in Grapefruit League action.
The 6'4'' right-hander was assigned to Triple-A Syracuse to start the season, after he ended his 2014 campaign with a (7-0) run in 11 starts for the Nats' top minor league affiliate, over which he put up 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 three starts before he was called up to make his MLB debut, Cole put up a 2.40 ERA, a 3.87 FIP, one walk (0.60 BB/9) and 10 Ks (6.00 K/9) in 15 IP.
Cole joined the Nationals in Atlanta and took the mound with the defending NL East Champions in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
"We've got a game plan," Williams told reporters before the game. "He's talking to [Steve McCatty] certainly about that. I met him today when he got here today, he came in the office, I shook his hand, I said, 'Welcome, it's what you've been dreaming about and go get'em.' If he makes his pitches, then he's got the ability to get outs, if he doesn't then they've got the chance to get a hit. Pretty simple game. He's faced major league hitters in Spring Training so he knows what it's all about."
He didn't make his pitches. And the Braves did hit his pitches when he was up in the zone for most of his two innings on the mound in Turner Field:
"Everything seemed to be middle up," Williams said after the debuting right-hander gave up nine hits and nine runs, four earned before the Nats pulled the plug on his MLB debut.
"Ball wasn't sinking," Williams continued.
"They were aggressive early, hitting the fastball and he didn't get to his secondary pitches. We tried to get him as far as we could, but after the second inning we just couldn't go any further with it."
According to Fangraphs.com's Pitchf/x numbers, Cole's fastball averaged 91.9 mph, his changeup sat at 83.7 mph, and he mixed in a few curves (74.6 mph) and his slider (83.3 MPH).
After he'd given up three hits and two runs in the first and four hits and two runs in the second, Cole got a grounder to first out of Alberto Callaspo for what should have been out no.3, but missed Ryan Zimmerman's toss to the bag when he hustled over to cover.
Two runs scored on the error, two more scored on a Kelly Johnson double in the next at bat and one more came around on a Jace Peterson single that put the Braves up 9-1 after two.
"He's a young pitcher," Williams said this morning. "But last night it was just middle of the plate and up and he really could never get into any counts... because they were aggressive and the pitches were up and they were hitting the ball. In the big inning, he had a couple of times where he could have stopped it. The ball that was chopped to Ryan [Zimmerman] that he tossed to him, he just whiffed on it and there was two runs and another jam base hit back through the middle gave them two more. And then after the second inning we had to get him out of there."
After Cole received a no-decision when the Nationals rallied from the early eight-run deficit for the 13-12 win, Williams was asked what he thought the right-hander should take from the experience?
"First time in the big leagues and it doesn't go your way, it's not fun," he said.
"But it lets him know that he's got to throw the ball where he wants to, he's got to change speeds, he's got to throw strikes, he's got to throw the ball down in the strike zone. They've got a bunch of lefties over here that know how to hit so when you face a lineup like that it's especially important to be down with it. So that's what he'll take. It's not the debut he wanted by any stretch, but it's a good learning experience too."
"I think he's got a bright future," Williams said on MLB Network Radio. "Last night it wasn't good for him, but he'll take it as a learning experience and understand that next time he gets a chance to pitch in the big leagues he's got to keep the ball down and on the corners and change speeds to get guys out. Not the debut that he wanted, for sure, but he'll learn from it and he'll be better for it next time."
"I’m going to look at it for a little bit. I’m not going to dwell on it or hold onto it,'" Cole told reporters in Atlanta, including Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes.
"The game’s over. It’s in the past now. So I’m not going to keep looking at it."
Cole was optioned back to Triple-A Syracuse this morning.