Cole trying to make late case to remain No. 5 starter

JUPITER, Fla. - Common sense says A.J. Cole’s shot at making the Nationals rotation took a major hit Friday when the club signed veteran Jeremy Hellickson to a minor league contract. Hellickson’s deal may not officially include a guaranteed spot on the big league roster, but it’s tough to see the Nats (or the 30-year-old right-hander) striking this arrangement without an implicit understanding.

Cole, of course, can’t allow himself to think that way. Until someone tells him otherwise, his spring mission hasn’t changed at all.

“I really don’t try to read into any of that,” he said. “I’m just trying to go out there, do my thing. Whatever happens, happens. I’m here to try to get that fifth spot.”

AJ-Cole-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpgThe odds may be slim at this point, but Cole certainly didn’t hurt his cause this afternoon with his best performance of the month. Facing a Cardinals lineup full of regulars, he allowed only one run over four innings, striking out six and making a case for the club not to forget about him.

“He did well,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’m very proud of him.”

It’s not like Cole had done anything to hurt his standing anytime recently; he hadn’t pitched since March 6 against the Astros, scratched from one other scheduled start after becoming ill. But the addition of Hellickson (owner of a 4.12 ERA in 204 career major league games) seemingly pushed Cole to a tenuous position.

If we are to assume Hellickson, who hasn’t pitched in a game yet but threw 60 pitches Saturday in a bullpen session, ultimately assumes the No. 5 starter’s job, the Nationals have to figure out what to do with Cole. Out of options, he can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. So a job as the long man in the bullpen could be his eventual landing spot.

But if he has his way, the right-hander will give the Nats no choice but to keep him in their big league rotation. And he set about to make that case today.

Cole allowed only two hits in his four innings, though one was a towering home run to José Martinez on a 3-2 fastball in the bottom of the fourth. More importantly, he struck out six, inducing more swings and misses today than he had in previous outings this spring.

“His ball was really moving,” Davey Martinez said. “His two-seamer was really, really good. I liked the fact that he fell behind and he came back and threw strikes, which is nice.”

Cole attributed his success to some minor tweaks he made earlier in the week with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, namely adjusting his “hand angle” in a way that made his pitches appear more deceptive to hitters.

“I can’t tell from my angle, but they were saying in the ‘pen that it looked a lot better,” he said. “It felt better coming out of my hand.”

Cole figures to get one more shot this spring to make a final case. Martinez said he likely plans to start both Cole and Hellickson in split-squad games scheduled for Friday against the Astros and Marlins.

The manager doesn’t want his young pitcher putting too much pressure on himself to make a definitive statement.

“I think A.J. knows the routine,” Martinez said. “He knows he’s got to compete. And he’s done a good job. I’m just glad that he’s healthy. I talked to him yesterday, and I said to him: ‘Hey, just go out there, have fun and compete. That’s all we can ask you to do.’ “

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