Cole will open as No. 5 starter, but Hellickson is strong in debut

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Nothing that happened tonight - barring injury - was going to change the Nationals' plan to open the season. A.J. Cole will be the No. 5 starter. Jeremy Hellickson will need more time to get himself up to speed after signing a minor league contract one week ago.

Manager Davey Martinez made all that official earlier this afternoon.

"We're going to open up with A.J. Cole being the fifth starter," Martinez said. "He's had a good camp. I like the way he threw all spring training. Hopefully he continues that."

Hellickson, meanwhile, was scheduled to throw 60 pitches in a split-squad game in Jupiter, his first game appearance of the spring and likely the first of several he'll need before he's caught up with all the other pitchers who were in camp from day one.

What transpired tonight on two different mounds in two South Florida towns separated by only 12 miles, though, may have served as notice to the Nationals' decision-makers. This arrangement may not be necessary for long.

While Cole labored through a ragged, four-inning start against the Astros, Hellickson impressed in his four-inning debut against the Marlins. The workload may have been similar, but the context of each outing forced you to view them in different lights.

cole-spring-nats-sidebar.jpgFive days removed from his best start of the spring, Cole struggled to repeat his efforts. He issued five walks, including three in a row to open the top of the second. He also allowed five hits, uncorked two wild pitches and might have surrendered more than three runs if not for a couple of nice defensive plays behind him, headlined by center fielder Michael A. Taylor's throw to the plate to nail Josh Reddick in the top of the third.

"Really, I felt like I was a little out of sync right off the top," the right-hander said. "I was pulling a lot of pitches, I was just getting behind hitters too much. That was the other thing I took away from it: I was trying to throw too much off-speed and hit too many corners, trying to be too perfect, rather than just go out there and throw."

Cole was working with catcher Miguel Montero for the first time and said the batterymates had trouble getting on the same page, complicating matters.

"It's always that first time, you have to learn how that person receives and how I throw to him," the pitcher said. "He's learning what pitches I want to go to."

Slated to go five innings for the first time this spring, Cole couldn't make it past the fourth, his pitch count already at 89. Subtract 20 pitches from that, and you get Hellickson's total after four innings of his own in Jupiter.

The 30-year-old right-hander was scheduled for only 60 pitches, but he maintained when he arrived in camp last weekend that he felt like he was more ready than most would have expected, having been throwing to live hitters at a Southern California camp for unsigned free agents run by agent Scott Boras.

Hellickson backed up the sentiment tonight, allowing just one run on three hits and a walk, striking out four and going beyond the plan by throwing 69 pitches in his four innings in front of a crowd that included pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and general manager Mike Rizzo.

The Nationals still have to decide how exactly to proceed with Hellickson. He could remain in Florida when the rest of the team heads north Sunday evening. He could end up making a start or two in the minors.

"It's all going to depend on how he feels after today," Martinez said. "This is his first game. I'm sure he's going to be sore tomorrow, but we'll have a better idea where we're at with them. We'll wait 'til after the game or tomorrow to see how he feels."

Martinez also said Cole may remain in Florida to make another tune-up start before his turn in the regular season (April 3 or 4 in Atlanta) arrives.

"We're going to talk about all of this the next day or so," the manager said. "But I would like for him to stay here and pitch another game. Cause it's too much downtime before his start."

Whatever the eventual path, whatever the eventual outcome, for now the original plan remains intact. Cole will open the season as the No. 5 starter, a plan some may have doubted would come to fruition but one Rizzo stuck to throughout the offseason and spring.

Not that Cole, who finished Grapefruit League play with a 4.85 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 13 innings, is taking anything for granted.

"It's always a good feeling when they tell you: 'We want you as that fifth guy. We want you as that starter. We want you as a guy that's going to help us win,'" he said. "But on my side of it, nothing's guaranteed. I have to go and prove that I can be that guy for them. And that's what I've been working on this whole offseason, getting in shape, getting stronger, getting bigger, getting healthy, staying healthy. I came into this spring wanting to show them I'm ready to compete and help this team win."

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