PHILADELPHIA - Right-hander A.J. Cole and center fielder Michael A. Taylor, whose paths have crossed a few times in the organization over the years, combined to lift the Nationals past the Phillies 3-1 in the opening game of a three-game set at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night.
Cole spun 5 2/3 solid innings, allowing only an Odubel Herrera line drive homer in the fourth, for his third win of the season. He struck out five batters, using his changeup and slider to mix up hitters.
“He’s commanding the strike zone,” said manager Dusty Baker. “He’s kept it out of the middle of the plate. The one ball that was hit out was in the middle of the plate. So if you stay out of the middle of the plate, you got action. He was using the corners. (Matt) Wieters has been putting down the fingers and he’s been executing his pitches. He threw a couple of changeups tonight and some sliders tonight.”
Taylor crushed a two-run shot in the second to set the tone for the Nats, his 17th homer of the season. Phillies starter Aaron Nola struck out nine on the night, but made a mistake on a 3-1 pitch that Taylor dropped into the left-center field seats to give the Nats a 2-0 lead.
Taylor swung at the first curveball he saw in the at-bat in the second. But then waded through fastballs and spit on the second curve. The next fastball came in a 91 mph and he hit out of the park.
“Just really know my zone, not expand, be selective,” Taylor said. “He’s going to get some pitches. He’s got that good curveball, good sinker. So I was just trying to stick to my zone and take a walk if he gives it to you.”
Taylor finished 1-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base and the solo shot, his average now .272. With six games left, does Taylor believe he’s getting close to midseason form after missing 29 games with a right oblique strain?
“Just continue to work like we have been all season,” Taylor said. “Like to go in feeling good at the plate and defensively. Taking the at-bats and, I guess, continuing to work in trying to get to the point where you feel locked in and ready to go.”
Monday’s game was Cole’s eighth start of the season, which matches his career high with the Nats from last season. But he has also made a couple of other two-inning appearances this month out of the bullpen. Cole said he felt that may have caused his rhythm to be a bit off early on in this one.
“I didn’t feel like I was in the best sync, going back and forth from the ‘pen and starting,” Cole said. “Just I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. They said, ‘Hey you need to start, can you start?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ So I’m just trying to be able to do whatever they need and help out right now.
“For the most part, I felt pretty good. Certain times, I was a little off - I missed one pitch tonight and then I had some good defense behind me.”
But he gathered confidence as his changeup started to get whiffs. He earned back-to-back strikeouts in the third inning of Freddy Galvis and Nick Williams to finally find that groove.
“I’ve been really concentrating on getting that changeup working for righties and lefties,” Cole said. “It’s really important pitch. (Max) Scherzer and Tanner (Roark), they’ve thrown that changeup to righties and I haven’t been. Tonight, I was getting a lot of effective swings and misses and just swings on them.”
Taylor and Cole have been on the same team a few times over the years beginning at low Single-A Hagerstown in 2011. Cole spent the next season in the A’s organization, but then returned, and from 2013 to present has played on teams that Taylor also played on: high Single-A Potomac, Double-A Harrisburg, Triple-A Syracuse and the Nats.
Taylor felt Cole made another nice step forward with his work in the win Monday.
“Definitely. I thought he looked great out there,” Taylor said. “Fastballs, his pitches looked really good. He was attacking hitters and didn’t fall behind too many times. I think it’s a good outing for him.”
The last big question was whether or not right fielder Bryce Harper would return from the disabled list Tuesday after battling flu-like symptoms Monday. Baker was not sure of his slugger’s status for Tuesday’s game. Harper has now missed 42 games since the Aug. 12 injury.
“I don’t know. There’s a possibility,” Baker said. “We just have to see how he feels tomorrow because you hate to waste these days, but also at the same time, you hate to push him out there when he’s not ready. Hopefully, it was just an overnight thing and he’ll hopefully be ready tomorrow.”