BALTIMORE - A.J. Cole didn't expect to be summoned to Atlanta on Thursday and be available to pitch for the Nationals out of the bullpen in case of emergency. So when his services weren't needed and he headed back north to Pawtucket, R.I., to rejoin Triple-A Syracuse, the right-hander figured he wouldn't be seeing a big league mound again for a while.
Baseball, of course, is a funny game. And so it was that Cole found himself tonight not in Pawtucket, not in Triple-A, but on the mound at Camden Yards, summoned back to the majors and asked to face an imposing Orioles lineup in a tough pitcher's park.
Oh, and the Nationals also needed him to go as deep as humanly possible into the game because their bullpen remains on fumes after a taxing road trip to Colorado and Atlanta.
"It's been a weird couple of days," Cole said with a smile, adding: "This is what the game is: Gotta be ready. And that's what I've been getting ready for."
The final tally showed Cole taking a 4-3 loss to Baltimore, done in by a pair of homers. Nobody in the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards, though, had a negative word to say about the 24-year-old, who churned out seven innings and gave his team a chance to win after ace Stephen Strasburg had to be scratched.
"He saved our bullpen," said manager Dusty Baker, who needed only one inning out of Koda Glover and gave his six other relievers the night off. "He pitched a heck of a game. He had great poise, great command against a very good offense. ... Man, he threw an outstanding game."
The news earlier in the afternoon that Strasburg not only wouldn't be making his scheduled start but that he was going on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow stiffness jolted the Nationals. Though Strasburg himself and club officials called the move precautionary and suggested he'll be fine to return in September, his injury history and the specter of anything involving his surgically repaired elbow can only send shivers down the spine.
But to his credit, Cole admirably filled in for what was a difficult situation. He cruised through his first two innings on 28 pitches, and though he suffered a hiccup in the middle portion of his start, he finished strong, retiring 12 of the last 14 batters he faced and giving his team a chance to win.
"It was a huge spot for us, for him to come up and pitch seven innings like that," said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who heard good things about Cole while on a rehab assignment with Syracuse last week. "Our bullpen has been kind of worked pretty tough over the Colorado trip and then down in Atlanta. So for him to give us seven strong innings and give them a rest tonight was huge for us, even in a loss."
Cole's mistakes came in the third and fourth innings, though the first wasn't really a mistake. Jonathan Schoop somehow lofted a home run directly over the left field foul pole off a fastball that was several inches inside the strike zone. Mark Trumbo's two-run homer the following inning, however, came on a fastball over the plate.
Even then, the young pitcher impressed his teammates and manager with his ability to shake off the big blast and get right back to work, striking out Pedro Alvarez (one of his eight strikeouts on the night).
"It's happened to me a lot, so I've gotten used to it," said Cole, who has allowed 16 homers in 22 games at Syracuse. "That's one of the things that I've learned: If you give up a home run or a big hit, you can't just give up. You have to go back after them and do what you know how to do."
"He seemed unfazed by the home runs, which is a sign of maturity," Baker said. "You can't do anything about the home run that just happened. All you can do is concentrate on the batter at hand."
Did Cole show enough tonight to warrant another start?
"He earned one," Baker said, though the manager later pointed out that Lucas Giolito (who couldn't be called up to make this start because he would have been on short rest) would purposely be lined up to be available the next time Strasburg's turn in the rotation comes up.
Whatever happens next, Cole can take solace knowing he made a strong impression on the organization, making the most of a tough situation. This came in stark contrast to his only other big league start, in April 2015, when he was manhandled by the Braves for nine runs in two innings, only to be let off the hook when the Nationals pulled off the biggest rally in club history en route to a 13-12 victory over the Braves.
This time around, he was up to the challenge.
"I mean, I got some under my belt," he said. "Comfort zone, yeah, might be a little better. I have a great team behind me, so I know I can go out there, make pitches, and they're going to make plays behind me. So, yeah, a little more comfortable this year."