BALTIMORE — The box score may say A.J. Cole couldn’t help the Nationals defeat the Orioles on Monday night at Camden Yards. But that doesn’t mean his outing didn’t provide a big boost to his team.
The 24-year-old right hander, who made his 2016 debut in an emergency start after Stephen Strasburg was placed on the disabled list, came through with a career-high seven innings of work to alleviate the Nats’ exhausted bullpen.
That might seem pale compared the ultimate objective of winning, but Washington is in the midst of 20 games in as many days, so it needs as many rested arms as it can get. Over the past week, Nats relievers have thrown 27 2/3 frames, desperately needing a starter to carry the load. Going against the powerful Orioles lineup on short notice, Cole did just that.
“He saved our bullpen,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He pitched a heck of a game. He had great poise, great command against a very good offense.”
Cole allowed four runs on five hits over seven innings while collecting a career-high eight strikeouts. On its face, that’s somewhat of a pedestrian stat line. But consider his only other big-league start was in April of 2015, where he allowed nine runs (four earned) in just two innings. Sixteen months later, the Nats got what they needed from him in his second go-round in the majors.
“I got some [experience] under my belt,” Cole said afterward. “Comfort zone, yeah, might be a little better. I have a great team behind me, so I know I can go out, make pitches and they're going to make plays behind me. So yeah, a little more comfortable this year.”
Perhaps Cole's most impressive trait he displayed was the ability to shake off a bad inning. After the Orioles three-run fourth — including a loud two-run home run from Mark Trumbo — the Birds were held scoreless the rest of the way.
“He seemed unfazed by the home runs, which is a sign of maturity,” Baker said. “You can’t do anything about the home run that just happened. All you can do is concentrate on the batter at hand."
“Tonight was the best I’ve seen him throw,” Ryan Zimmerman said. ”…He was attacking the guys tonight. It was good to see. It was a huge spot for us for him to come up and pitch seven innings like that. Our bullpen has been kind of worked pretty tough over Colorado trip and then down in Atlanta. So for him to give us seven strong innings and give them a rest tonight was huge for us even in a loss.”
Though Cole acquitted himself well in spot duty, there's no guarantee he'll be asked to start again soon. Though Baker admitted the performance earned the young right hander another chance down the road, he said the Nats are preparing Lucas Giolito to make Strasburg’s next start if necessary.
But with the rotation in flux for the foreseeable future, the Nats have to feel good knowing they have yet another capable arm to call upon in a pinch.
“This is what the game is, gotta be ready," Cole said, "and that's what I've been getting ready for.”