“The way [A.J.] Cole finished last year, we really liked the way he [finished],” Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Eduard Perez and Steve Phillips towards the end of Spring Training.
Cole, 26, was in camp competing for the fifth spot on the Nationals’ rotation at the time, and as Rizzo explained, the 2010 Nats’ 4th Round pick was the frontrunner after a strong finish in 2017, and, in part, because he was out of options.
“His last seven starts were really good for us, his last eleven were solid, so he’s coming off some success at the end there,” Rizzo said. “He’s always been a good prospect for us, but kind of inconsistent. I think he came to camp this year and he was bigger, stronger, more prepared for Spring Training. He’s thrown extremely well for us.”
Cole was named the fifth starter late this Spring.
“We’re going to open up with A.J. Cole being the fifth starter,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“He’s had a good camp. I like the way he threw all Spring Training. Hopefully he continues that.”
Before tonight’s outing, Martinez talked to reporters about Cole’s spot, and what advice he gave the right-hander, which was to focus on the task at hand rather than the future make-up of the starting rotation.
“For me it’s worry about today and I tell him that,” Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.
“Hey, strike one today. Let’s concentrate on strike one and let’s go from there. I think he’ll be fine. He’s got good stuff. A little confidence goes a long way and right now he’s feeling pretty good.”
Three years after Cole made his MLB debut in Atlanta in 2015, giving up nine hits and nine runs (four earned) in two innings, he was back in Georgia for his first start of 2018, but it went all pear-shaped at the start, as the Braves, who fell behind 3-0 in the first, put up a four-spot on the Nats’ starter in a 23-pitch bottom of the first inning.
Cole went all DIY in the second, however, homering to tie it up at 4-4 with his first career home run, but the Braves got to him again in the second, with two walks, an RBI single by Ozzie Albies, and a three-run home run by Freddie Freeman putting Atlanta up 8-4.
Bryce Harper made it an 8-5 game with a solo shot in the top of the third, but Cole gave up back-to-back-to-back singles by the first three batters in the Braves’ half of the inning, and surrendered a ninth run, 9-5.
Back-to-back, two-out hits in the fourth and a 10th run ended Cole’s outing, and the Nats lost their first game by a final score of 13-6.
A.J. Cole’s Line: 3.2 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 3 BB, 4 Ks, 2 HRs, 75 P, 49 S, 4/3 GO/FO.
“His stuff wasn’t bad, just his location was the problem,” Martinez told reporters when asked what went wrong.
“He’d get ahead and then couldn’t finish hitters off. Got a couple balls up in the zone, which is — for him he’s got to get the ball down, you know.
“To their [credit] they came out and they swung the bats pretty good. We tried to battle back and it just wasn’t enough.”
“The body felt pretty good for the most part, I was just missing, just by a little, fell behind in the counts a little bit, and then they got into hitters’ counts,” Cole explained.
What, if anything, did Martinez say to his starter after the outing?
“It’s start No. 1,” he said. “The beautiful thing about this is in five days he gets to do it again, so I told him to keep his head up... and nice home run.”
So, does that mean Cole’s keeping the spot for now and going again in five days?
“We’ll talk about it,” Martinez said, “depending on what happens in the next few days with the weather. Who knows what will happen with the crazy weather we’re having all over, so yeah, but we’ll definitely talk about it, but yeah, we’ve got to get him back out there.”
Cole was asked if he was out on the mound concerned about his spot in the rotation, but he said he was only thinking about getting batters out.
“I was just trying to go into the game like any other game,” he said. “Just trying to compete and go after the guys. Our players got ahead of them, and I just tried going out there and get right back in the dugout, and I fell behind and that hurt me.”
Does he feel like he’s pitching for his spot?
“I’m going to go out there every time and pitch like I can, pitch to contact, pitch to get people out, pitch to help my team,” Cole said.
But at least he hit the home run, right? “It’s cool to have it, but I’m out there to pitch and compete that way.”