Without Stephen Strasburg for an indefinite period of time, the Nationals are well aware that they must piece together the back-end of their starting rotation for the foreseeable future. For most teams, that’s easier said than done.
But with a comfortable lead in the National League East, Washington is willing to lean on the talented-yet-unproven trio of Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole, hoping one emerges and provides stability to a starting staff that desperately needs it.
On Thursday night, it was Cole who got the call to make his latest impression. And though he wasn’t able to replicate last week’s impressive outing against the Mets, he showed enough promise that will likely earn him more chances down the road.
“He’s done well,” manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats’ 4-1 loss. “He doesn’t have many walks. He throws strikes. He uses his secondary pitches well.”
Cole’s pitching line Thursday night was rather pedestrian — he allowed four runs on five hits over five innings — but he again displayed the composure Baker wanted to see. It also didn’t hurt that he continued to show command of the strike zone, tying a career high with eight strikeouts while walking none. And in his last two outings, he has 13 strikeouts to just two free passes.
However, the blemish came in the third inning, when he allowed a pair of home runs, a solo shot to Peter Bourjos and a three-run homer to Ryan Howard, that proved to be the decisive runs of the game.
“I had two bad pitches,” Cole said. “But coming out of all this, it’s learning for me. I’ve got to shake off. Howard hit a good pitch.”
“Location the first one, the second one was good,” said catcher Jose Lobaton. “It was down, maybe [Howard] was guessing right. I feel like in general [Cole] got pretty good stuff."
After spending most of the season at Triple-A Syracuse, Cole has acquitted himself well in his four big-league starts since Strasburg was placed on the disabled list in late August. Unlike Giolito and Lopez, the 24-year-old right hander has made it through at least five innings in each of his outings.
“He seems kind of unfazed by the challenges in the big leagues,” Baker said.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case with Cole. He only made three appearances in 2015, but seemed overwhelmed at the time by the majors, yielding 11 runs (six earned) over just 9 1/3 innings. But his relative success so far in his second go-round suggests a growing confidence, especially as he’s given more opportunities.
“I’ve always believed in myself as being a big league pitcher,” Cole said. “I’ve got to be able to show that. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now. I have the stuff to throw it. I just need to go out there and compete.”
Added Lobaton: “That's going to happen. He's been here for a little bit. He's been working better now. He's been able to be a leader there on the mound. That's what you want. As a catcher, you want a guy that whatever he wants to throw, whatever he feels he can throw, [he throws].”
It goes without saying, but the young starter that latches on with the rotation the rest of September is probably not going to perform like Strasburg. The Nats won't need that until October. In the meantime, they'll hope a slew of inexperienced arms like Cole can help them cross the finish line in their race to clinch an NL East title.
"I think, in general, everybody's got to be ready,” Lobaton said. “Now that that we don't have Stephen — we need him here, and everybody knows that, hopefully we can have him back, I don't know when — but everybody's got to get ready. We got young guys that I know they can throw. And hopefully Lopez and A.J. can be good for the team."