Like most young pitchers, all it took for right-hander A.J. Cole to feel a little more sure of himself at the major league level was a modicum of success.
In the eight starts Cole made for the Nationals last season - all after Aug. 22 following the elbow injury that short-circuited Stephen Strasburg’s season - the 24-year-old went at least five innings five times. Those were his first five starts of 2016, following an 8-8 record and 4.26 ERA in 22 starts at Triple-A Syracuse, and included his first major league victory, six innings of three-hit ball against the Mets on Sept. 2.
“It makes me feel a lot better (about) myself for the fact that I started figuring stuff out at the end of the year,” Cole said recently at Nats Winterfest. “I struggled at the beginning of the year a little bit. As the season went on, I got stronger. So I have a baseline of what I need to work out before I get into the season.”
In his final three starts, the results weren’t as positive. Cole lasted only 9 2/3 innings in the three outings, which included his shortest major league start of the season, 2 2/3 innings at Pittsburgh on Sept. 25 when he was ejected for throwing behind the head of Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang. Benches emptied when Cole sailed the first pitch of a third-inning at-bat in apparent retaliation for Kang’s faux tag that induced an awkward slide by Bryce Harper on a triple in the top half of the inning. Harper left the game with an injured left hand after scoring a run and missed the next four contests. Cole was issued a five-game suspension, and served two games of the ban; whenever he’s placed on the Nats’ 25-man roster, he’ll miss his first three games of the 2017 campaign.
Cole, who went 1-2 with a 5.17 ERA in eight starts for the Nats in 2016, admits that he tired at the end of the season, an issue he traced to weight lost from his 6-foot-5, 215-lb. frame in the waning weeks.
“Last year, I got my weight,” he said. “I stayed with it most of the year. Towards the end, I dropped a little bit. So this year, being more used to that weight - I’m still putting on weight - I know how to manage it a little better. So throughout the year I’ll probably be able to attain better and work better. (Adding weight) seemed to help me not get as tired throughout the year. But going on the second year, I’ll probably notice it a lot more.”
Where Cole will be pitching in 2017 remains to be seen. He’s long been one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects, and the organization liked him enough to reacquire him from the A’s after sending him to Oakland in the package for lefty Gio Gonzalez in December 2011. Cole returned to Washington in the January 2013 three-team deal that sent Michael Morse to the Mariners. Pitchers Blake Treinen and Ian Krol also came to the Nats in the swap.
After going 13-3 in the minors in 2015, including a 7-0 record in 11 starts at Syracuse, Cole seemed ready to challenge for a spot on the major league staff. But he posted only a 5-6 record and 3.15 ERA in 21 games (19 starts) at Triple-A in 2015 and was hit hard in three outings for the Nationals that season, compiling a 5.69 ERA in three games (one start).
The trade that sent right-handers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to the White Sox for center fielder Adam Eaton earlier this month cost the Nationals a significant portion of their minor league rotation depth. It also elevated Cole to next-man-up status should the Nats need a reinforcement in their starting five.
Cole thinks what he learned in August and September - especially how to more effectively use his slider - positions him well heading into spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“That was ... one of the pitches that was working better for me, so I kind of went towards it a little more,” Cole explained. “The other pitches, I was trying to get back. The changeup starting coming for me more towards the last couple games I threw. But that’s still a big thing I need (to be) effective. I had it for a couple of years, then I lost a little bit at the beginning of the year, and then started getting it back. That’s a big pitch for me.”
Cole credits pitching coach Mike Maddux for helping him regain his slider.
“He helped a lot with location with my slider, where to get extension,” Cole said. “He helped get my changeup back a lot. We kind of played around with a couple of grips and we got the feeling for it back. So he helps a lot.”
But the strides he made in the final six weeks of the season weren’t all pitch-related. Cole said he’s now more comfortable with the challenge of facing an opposing batting order multiple times instead of struggling mightily the second time through a lineup.
“It’s easy to go out there and throw one time through a lineup,” he said. “I wouldn’t say easy, but a guy’s going to only see you once, you can give him everything. But as you throw two times through the lineup, it gets harder the next time you face him. They’ve got scouting reports and everything on you. So now you’re not anything new to them. So I learned a lot there. This year, I’ll be able to go after it a lot better.”