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Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

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.”

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It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm