Cole still struggling to find consistency from start to start

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - If everything goes according to the Nationals’ plan, A.J. Cole won’t be in their opening day rotation. But with Tanner Roark still pitching in the World Baseball Classic and Max Scherzer still avoiding Grapefruit League games while testing his new three-fingered fastball grip, Cole is going to continue getting starts against big league opponents.

And what would the Nationals like to see from the 25-year-old right-hander in however many more starts he gets this spring?

“Just consistency, I think,” manager Dusty Baker said. “And also the ability to get out of trouble when you get into trouble. That’s what happens sometimes to young pitchers. ... We’ll see. We’ll keep putting him out there until we make a decision.”

A.J.-Cole-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpgThe Nationals didn’t see either of those attributes from Cole during today’s 8-2 loss to the Astros. Six days removed from a four-inning no-hitter against the Marlins, he was roughed up for seven runs on six hits and three walks. Scheduled to go five innings, he was pulled after throwing 73 pitches in only 3 2/3 innings.

Most of the damage came during a five-run bottom of the third, during which Cole issued a pair of walks (one with the bases loaded) and then a towering three-run homer to Jon Kemmer. Two innings earlier, he allowed another homer to Brian McCann, though one that was tipped over the right-field fence by a leaping Bryce Harper.

“My pitches weren’t as sharp,” Cole said. “I had a little bit of command with all my pitches. My pitches just weren’t sharp.”

This, of course, is the challenge for many pitchers of varying experience levels, how to still be successful on days when they don’t feel their best. And it’s something Cole has been trying to master himself since reaching the majors last summer.

“When you don’t have your stuff, you’re going to fight every way you can to keep your team in the game,” he said. “You’ve got to keep the ball down. You’ve got to mix it up. It’s hard to do. But you’ve just got to find a way.”

Cole has now made four starts this spring. He cruised through his previous outing against the Marlins, allowing just one baserunner in four innings. But in each of his three other appearances, he has allowed four or more runs, further evidence of his struggles to find consistency no matter how he feels on a given afternoon.

“It’s very important,” Baker said. “If you don’t have your best stuff, you just have to figure out a way and try to make them hit the ball on the ground, if you have such a pitch. The left-handers were seeing him pretty good today, it seemed like. Like I said, that was a tough third inning. We were hoping he’d go five today. That was our hope, but it didn’t happen.”

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