After A.J. Cole threw the final pitch of the Futures Game this afternoon, he started to walk toward his team’s dugout. Cole had not felt awed pitching in a packed major league stadium, and he welcomed playing with and against players at higher levels. The only hard part for the starter was what to do after he finished. A teammate needed to remind him to line up and shake hands.
“I was like, ‘Oh, right,’ ” Cole said.
Cole, a right-hander at Class A Potomac and one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects, retired both hitters he faced to earn the save in Team USA’s 4-2 victory at Citi Field. Flashing his mid-90s fastballs and a rapidly improving change-up, Cole struck out Ji-Man Choi, 22-year-old first baseman for the Seattle Mariners’ Class AA affiliate and ended the game with a weak groundball from Jesus Galindo, a San Francisco Giants prospect at Class A Augusta.
Cole’s father watched from the stands as Cole fired six of his 10 pitches for strikes. His fastball hummed at 95 and 96 miles per hour. The whole experience was “awesome,” Cole said, and he particularly enjoyed the chance play on the same field as some of the game’s best prospects, including a few at Class AA or Class AAA.
“Because I believe that I can throw to anyone,” Cole said. “I just got to be able to prove that to myself. I know my time is going to come. I just have to keep working and stay consistent. That’s the basic thing I have to work on, is consistency. I’ll think I’ll be fine from there.”
Cole, 21, reveled in the chance to play in the Futures Game, which came only after Taylor Jordan – who started the season alongside him in the Potomac rotation – pulled out with another engagement. Jordan allowed two runs over six innings in the Nationals’ victory this afternoon, lowering his ERA to 3.32 after four career starts.
Watching Jordan’s rapid ascension stoked Cole’s desire to follow him to the majors. At Potomac this year, Cole has gone 5-3 with a 4.43 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 22 walks in 91 1/3 innings. While Jordan, 24, rocketed to the majors, Cole could see himself doing the same.
“You could see it in him,” Cole said. “Great, great arm. Every once in a while, you get frustrated. But I mean, who doesn’t? If you’re in a lower level, you feel like, ‘I should be up there.’ It happens to everyone. I [had been] friends with him for a while. I played against him one time in high school. I told him, ‘You’ll be up there.’ Next thing you know, he’s actually up there.”
Cole may reach Class AA Harrisburg by the end of the year, and the majors appear to be at least a year or two away. But with both Jordan and Nate Karns, the Nationals have shown they are not afraid of bypassing Class AAA to add a starter to their rotation.
“I feel like I will be up there in time,” Cole said. “I’ve seen in the past, they’ve done a great job with pitchers and moving them up. If they think it’s time, they get them there. So I’m not too worried at all if I make it, if I won’t make it. I’m just going to sit here, do my thing, keep trying to get better. I’ll hopefully find myself up there.”
The Nationals took Cole in the fourth round of the 2010 draft and signed him with a $2 million bonus, at the time the largest ever for a fourth-round pick. They traded him to Oakland as part of the deal that brought in Gio Gonzalez, but he returned to the Nationals in the three-team deal that sent Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners.
Cole struggled with the A’s in the high-A California League, a notoriously perilous league for pitchers. Oakland demoted him, but Cole has since straightened out his career path. Before this season, MLB.com rated him the 91st overall prospect in baseball.
“It was a learning experience for me,” Cole said. “I didn’t take it as a bad thing that I was doing that. I took it as, I need to work on stuff. I tried to bouncing back from that, and I feel like I’ve come a long way from those starts to now. I feel like I’m going to keep progressing.”
After his two-batter save, Cole hammered the theme of consistency. He recently moved to a new arm angle, slightly lower, and he can have a hard time finding the right slot for his breaking ball. He never needed to throw a change-up in high school, but he has impressed Nationals officials with how far it has come. Cole grips the change-up with his index and ring fingers on seams, with his middle finger between the seams, so the spin mimics his two-seam fastball.
Cole makes his confidence clear. When asked about his goals for the rest of the year, he responded, “Make the big leagues?” He was only joking. But if keeps progressing, he’ll be back at a major league stadium soon, starting games rather than finishing exhibitions.
“Once I get to that one spot with the arm, the mechanics, I can basically put the ball anywhere I want,” Cole said. “My pitches all work for me. I’m comfortable to throw a pitch in any count, even when I’m not feeling the best, because I believe in my stuff. I believe I can throw it, and not just, ‘Oh, here you go.’ I’m very confident in my stuff. I just try and go after people. Sometimes, it looks like I’m not tying to go after him, I’m trying to play with them, trying to trick them. But I watch certain hitters as they swing or step, and I find little things. That’s why I do what I do as a pitcher.”