Patrick Reddington: Is A.J. Cole the Nationals' next big thing?

Two unearned runs scored on a bases-loaded error by Harrisburg Senators third baseman Adrian Sanchez and two more on came in on a two-out RBI double later in the sixth inning of last night's game in Arm and Hammer Park in Trenton, N.J., where the Senators beat the Trenton Thunder 6-4 with a five-run comeback in the top of the ninth inning.

A.J. Cole, 22, left his ninth start of the season after 5 2/3 innings with a 1.97 ERA on the year and the Senators down 4-1. But the Matt Skole-led rally in the ninth started with one of two walks the first baseman took in two plate appearances in the inning as Harrisburg's hitters strung together four walks total, four singles and five runs.

In 45 2/3 innings so far in 2014, Cole, the Nationals' 2010 fourth-round pick, who was traded to the Oakland A's in 2012 and reacquired a year later, has struck out 39 batters, walked just nine and held opposing hitters to a .277 batting average against.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was clear when he reacquired Cole in the January 2013 three-way trade with the Athletics and Seattle Mariners that he wasn't worried about his rough year in the A's system.

Assistant GM Doug Harris explained in a November 2013 MLB Network Radio interview that the Nationals watched Cole closely during his year in Oakland's organization and saw signs that the right-hander straightened out some mechanical issues at the end of his 2012 campaign.

"His developmental curve is on track," Rizzo assured reporters after bringing Cole back. "We're going to get him with our pitching people and kind of straighten out his delivery and I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us from this point forward."

Cole was 6-3 with a 4.25 ERA, a 3.54 FIP, 23 walks (2.13 walks per nine innings) and 102 Ks (9.43 strikeouts per nine innings) in 18 starts and 97 1/3 innings at high Single-A Potomac before moving up to Double-A for seven starts and going 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA, a 2.56 FIP, 10 walks (1.99 BB/9) and 49 Ks (9.73 K/9) in 45 1/3 innings with Harrisburg.

"When he came back to us, we did a few mechanical things with him to get him to a place where we felt we could maximize his skills," Harris said in his MLB Network radio interview. "Very hard worker and the second half of last year was very special for him."

"For me, he's got the ultimate pitcher's body," Matt Williams told reporters after watching Cole pitch this spring. "It's long and then he gets out front and the ball explodes out of his hand. I like it."

Cole threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with the Nationals, holding hitters to a .200 average in three Grapefruit League outings before he was sent to minor league camp and then back to Double-A Harrisburg to start the 2014 campaign.

"His fastball explodes the last 10-15 feet, or so it seems," Senators radio broadcaster Terry Byrom said last night when asked for a quick scouting report on Cole. "He has (such) a nice controlled, slow, windup that the ball jumps on the hitter and 90 (mph) looks 95 (mph). His breaking pitch is improving with each start. He always appears in control, never rattled, very confident in his abilities on the mound."

""What we're seeing with A.J. Cole this season, and late last season, with the Harrisburg Senators is the development of a genuine big league starting pitcher," PennLive.com and Patriot-News Senators beat writer Geoff Morrow wrote in an email after Cole's start on Thursday. "The reason talents like Cole are still in the minor leagues is they're perfecting a pitch or two.

"Their skill set is already highly evident. And with Cole, a 22-year-old right-hander, that's his fastball and his changeup. Perfect? Nah. But damn fine and already good enough to get big league hitters out."

"But Cole is working on a slider/curve, too, that, when on, makes him truly dominant."

Cole currently has the second- lowest ERA among all pitchers in the Eastern League, and, as Morrow noted, the right-hander's numbers are even more impressive because he's essentially done it with two pitches and a work in progress.

"Through the early part of this season," Morrow wrote, "even Cole would admit the breaking ball hasn't been his most reliable pitch. But he's still 4-2 with a 1.97 ERA and is clearly among the best starting pitchers in the Double-A Eastern League."

Of 23 pitchers with at least 45 innings pitched in the Eastern League this season, Cole is one of just three who hasn't allowed a home run.

"The fact that he can power through some talented EL offenses with just his fastball and changeup predicts a solid future with the Nats," Morrow said. "Once he gets comfortable with the breaking ball, though, Cole has the potential to be the next dynamite Nationals starter."

The Nationals reached down to Double-A for both Ian Krol, since traded to Detroit, and Taylor Jordan last season, because they lacked attractive options with their top minor league affiliate.

With all due respect to 25-year-old right-hander Taylor Hill, who is pitching at Triple-A, the next big thing in the organization with a reasonable chance of debuting in the majors in 2014 is at Harrisburg again this season.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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