ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals’ perfect season ended in the bottom of the first inning Tuesday night when Atlanta Braves outfielder Preston Tucker hit a deep flyball to right field, one that hung in the air long enough for one to ponder that ancient baseball truth — that what goes up must come down, and it will not always plummet when one wants it to.
By the time this particular projectile landed, the Nationals trailed for the first time in 2018 and starter A.J. Cole had allowed more runs in one inning than the four other Nationals starters had in 25⅓ . His team did not recover and ended up falling, 13-6, for its first loss of the year.
Cole allowed 10 runs, tied for the most any Nationals starter has ever surrendered, and became only the third Nationals pitcher to allow so many since this recent run of success began in 2012. His quest to lock down a spot in the rotation did not begin well, and though no one would say so afterward, that quest could end soon because of it.
“His stuff wasn’t bad,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “His location was the problem.”
The evening began with promise, like all Nationals games this season. For the fifth time in five games, the Nationals’ leadoff man reached to begin the game. For the fifth time in five games, the Nationals took a lead before their starter took the mound. Ryan Zimmerman homered a few pitches later to build the lead to three.
But for the first time in five games, their starter gave a run back right away. Cole, the 26-year-old who secured a spot in the Opening Day rotation after hovering on the outside looking in for four seasons, surrendered a hit, a walk and a double that gave the Braves a run and left them threatening as Tucker took a mighty swing.
When that ball landed, ensuring three Braves runs would score, the Nationals’ unsustainable run of success ended. They had not trailed for 36 innings to start the season, the longest streak in franchise history. Suddenly, a three-run lead turned into a one-run deficit. Cole, pitching for his place in the rotation with veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson building up strength in West Palm Beach, Fla., was off to a bad start at the worst possible time.
The Nationals (4-1) signed Hellickson and built a May opt-out into his deal, which seemed like a sign they planned to give him a shot at the big leagues before then. Hellickson was scheduled to throw 80 to 90 pitches in an extended spring training game Tuesday. He probably won’t be ready until he has thrown at least one more start somewhere other than the big leagues, perhaps in a minor league game once those seasons start this week.
But Cole’s struggles increase the chance the Nationals will find an opportunity for Hellickson sooner than later. Cole fell behind almost every hitter, forcing him to fight back into counts and nibble, not attack. Nationals starters had issued four walks in their first 25 1 /3 innings of the season. Cole issued three in his first two.
He homered in the top of the second to tie the game, which would have been a memorable moment had trouble not struck again a half-inning later. Cole surrendered another no-doubter, this time to Freddie Freeman, whom he pitched to when first base was open. He allowed four more runs in the second, and even when Bryce Harper added his fourth home run in his past three games, the Nationals’ offense couldn’t close the gap.
“I was just missing just by a little, fell behind in the count by a little bit,” Cole said. “Fell behind in the counts a little bit, and then they got into hitters’ counts.”
Three years ago this month, Cole experienced a similar night in Atlanta. That one was his major league debut, a rough evening on which he allowed nine runs, four earned, on nine hits in two innings. This one was worse. Martinez stuck with Cole, hoping the starter could settle down enough to eat some innings. But the Braves (3-2) kept scoring, and Martinez couldn’t wait. Cole’s evening ended after he allowed 10 runs on 10 hits in 3⅔ innings.
“The beautiful thing about this is in five days he gets to do it again,” Martinez said. “I told him to keep his head up, and nice home run.”
But later, Martinez clarified that Cole might not actually pitch five days from now. Because of their day off Friday, the Nationals don’t necessarily need a fifth starter until midway through next week. Rain and snow are threatening their weekend games against the New York Mets, so the plans could change then, too. If they do, the Nationals could push a few starters back and skip that fifth spot if they so choose.
“We’ll talk about it, depending on what happens in the next few days with the weather. Who knows what will happen with the crazy weather we’re having,” Martinez said. “But, yeah, we’ve got to get [Cole] back out there.”
In the meantime, they will play for a series win Wednesday, the first test of their bounce-back ability under a rookie manager. They were never going to win every game. They will now have to determine what happens after they lose one — and how many second chances they can afford to give.