Nats Rizzo has confidence A.J. Cole will be big league starter (Update: Cole to Syracuse)

The Nationals will start Double-A Harrisburg right-hander Joe Ross Saturday. The first-round 2011 selection, who started his career with the Padres, follows rookie A.J. Cole in making his major league debut with the Nats.

Cole started April 28 at Atlanta, but allowed nine runs, only four earned, in two innings. Down 9-1, the Nationals rallied to win that game in dramatic fashion, 13-12.

Cole was then sent down, but has since made two more appearances with the Nationals on May 15 and May 23, a span of 7 1/3 innings, this time as a reliever.

President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo has always been very high on the 23-year-old Cole as a prospect and sees him as a starter for the Nationals.

cole-spring-nats-sidebar.jpg“Right now he’s giving us length and innings in the bullpen, but we definitely consider him a elite prospect and a guy that we’re counting on to be a starting pitcher for us in the very near future,” Rizzo said.

Cole has a 5.79 ERA in three big league games, but has come on strong these past couple of seasons, climbing the ranks of the minor league system. Last season, Cole went 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 25 starts.

“I think he struggled here in the big leagues with consistency, but when he goes down in the minor leagues, he performs admirably at the pace that he should be,” Rizzo said.

Cole admitted he learned from that first start against the Braves what wasn’t working early in the game.

“One of the (biggest) things is keeping the ball down,” Cole said. “I had a slight mechanical issue that I feel like I fixed out on my own after the first outing. I don’t think they were looking at what I felt, they were looking at something slightly different. But I felt this and it helped me a lot of staying through and not falling off so much and that helped me be more consistent in locating and keeping the ball down.”

Now with the big club, Cole hasn’t gone up to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann or others and asked for pointers or advice, but instead has quietly gone about his business and studied these players by observing them work from the clubhouse, dugout and bullpen.

“I have just been watching them and seeing how they go against guys and go at them, everything like that,” Cole said. “You don’t always have to talk to guys to learn things. You can watch and you can learn a lot.”

Was the tough first start fueled by his nervousness to do well in his first major league game?

Cole says no way, he had already been in pressure situations with the team this March.

“Always the first one they say your going to have the jitters and you’re going to be really amped up,” Cole said. “I felt like I took care of that in spring training. I really didn’t feel the jitters even though it’s a completely different season than spring training.

“I had some stuff I had to work on. I left the ball up that first outing. The second outing I came in, kept the ball more down and a lot more success with that. I’m going to keep working at keeping the ball down.”

Cole was sent back to Triple-A Syracuse after his May 23 outing. On May 29, he walked an uncharacteristic seven batters in a loss at Durham.

“It was one of those things, it’s not me, I don’t walk people,” Cole said. “Never been like that in my career, it was just one of those weird things that happened. The arm feels fine. It was one of those funks you throw a ball and you don’t have that feeling for a couple of pitches. I just couldn’t find the strike zone after that.”

He said what also helped him to build confidence in his second tour of duty with the Nationals were the experienced catchers, Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton, guiding him through the opponent’s lineup.

“You know they are great because they are up here playing against every team,” Cole said. “As a younger guy coming up, they already know the guys, they already know what they can and can’t do. I’ve had the privilege of throwing to Ramos through his rehabs and spring training and all that, so he knows me as a pitcher and how I throw. And he also knows the other players, so going between the two it helps a lot.”

The Nationals have gone to the Double-A level on a regular basis over the last few seasons to grab their top prospect pitchers and at least give them a shot in the bigs. There is an inherent risk when reaching to Double-A with a highly rated player that they may not be quite ready, but Rizzo is never afraid to give these guys a shot if he believes they have the talent.

He believes Cole has the stuff of a major league starting pitcher, despite that uncomfortable start against the Braves.

Rizzo believed so much in Cole that he traded for him back from the Oakland A’s along with Blake Treinen in 2013. Cole was a Nationals draft pick in 2010.

Does Rizzo think Cole should have built more innings in Harrisburg before coming to D.C.?

“Maybe my fault a little bit for rushing him to big leagues a little bit when he maybe wasn’t ready, so we’re going to be cautious with and careful with him, but he’s a great talent, and he’s got great stuff, a great demeanor and a great makeup, and he’s a guy that’s going to be a real good pitcher for us,” Rizzo said.

Update: The Nationals selected the contract of Ross prior to Saturday’s game with the Cubs. The team optioned Cole to Syracuse and moved pitcher Craig Stammen (right forearm strain, surgery) to the 60-day disabled list.

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