ATLANTA — Right-hander A.J. Cole will start in place of Max Scherzer on Tuesday, Nationals Manager Matt Williams said after Monday’s loss to the Braves. Cole will become the fourth Nationals pitcher to make his major league debut this month, though he will be the first one to do so as a starter.
Scherzer, who sprained his right thumb hitting Thursday, has yet to throw off a mound since suffering the injury. He played catch in the outfield Sunday and Monday, and while he could throw his fastball with close-to-normal velocity, the swelling in his thumb prevented him from gripping his other pitches adequately.
So, the Nationals chose Cole to replace him. The other choice was 15-game winner Tanner Roark, who Williams estimated would have been able to go 50 to 60 pitches before needing relief. That would likely have exhausted the bullpen.
Cole is a 6-5 flamethrower who relies on a mid-90s fastball that he mixes with a slurve-y breaking ball. Command of that breaking ball has been the fulcrum of Cole’s development, and showed improvement — and occasionally room for more — in spring training. He is considered the most major league-ready of Nationals starting pitching prospects, crowded out of the rotation by the glut of talented starters.
When the Nationals signed Scherzer this offseason, they pushed Roark to the bullpen. Had they not signed Scherzer, Roark would likely have been the reason Cole did not make the major league rotation. Such is the early season state of these Nationals that Cole is somehow taking a turn with the team anyway.
The Nationals chose Cole in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, then traded him to Oakland in the deal that brought them Gio Gonzalez. They re-acquired him in the three-team trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle. In 11 starts with Class AAA Syracuse last season, Cole was 7-0 with 50 strikeouts in 63 innings. He has made three starts this season and pitched to a 2.40 ERA over 15 innings.