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Cole stays in the mix for 5th rotation spot

MLB.com @JamalCollier

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- As the weeks go by during Spring Training, the Nationals have maintained the same stance they took during the winter regarding their vacant fifth-starter position. They say they are content with the players they have in camp and will be comfortable beginning the season with an in-house option as their fifth starter.

That keeps right-hander A.J. Cole as the favorite to begin the season in the rotation with Opening Day approaching. Cole's latest audition came on Tuesday afternoon in a 10-5 loss to the Astros. He gave up three runs on five hits in three innings, although he collected four strikeouts by punching out Astros stars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa twice.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- As the weeks go by during Spring Training, the Nationals have maintained the same stance they took during the winter regarding their vacant fifth-starter position. They say they are content with the players they have in camp and will be comfortable beginning the season with an in-house option as their fifth starter.

That keeps right-hander A.J. Cole as the favorite to begin the season in the rotation with Opening Day approaching. Cole's latest audition came on Tuesday afternoon in a 10-5 loss to the Astros. He gave up three runs on five hits in three innings, although he collected four strikeouts by punching out Astros stars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa twice.

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It was an uneven outing, and Cole lamented that he fell behind too often, but manager Dave Martinez still saw positives.

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"He's got tremendous upside, that's for sure," Martinez said. "He throws hard, but his fastball is not straight. He's got good breaking pitches; the key for him is to work ahead in counts and throw strikes. That's what we're asking him to do. So far he's been good. He's been really good."

In addition to Cole, the Nationals got a look at another fifth-starter candidate in right-hander Erick Fedde, the team's top pitching prospect, on Tuesday. Fedde threw two innings and gave up a run on three hits with a pair of strikeouts.

Video: HOU@WSH: Fedde strikes out Gattis in the 5th inning

Washington also has veterans Edwin Jackson and Tommy Milone in camp to compete for that final spot, but Cole remains the favorite, though that has not changed his mindset.

"I've come in with the same attitude as every other year, just compete and show what I've got," Cole said.

But as several free-agent starting pitchers linger on the open market, speculation has continued to swirl that Washington will eventually grab one of them. General manager Mike Rizzo has said several times that he is not monitoring the starting-pitching market closely, although he has been known to make a deal when he finds value and believes it can help his club improve.

But the Nationals have continued to express confidence in Cole. He is out of Minor League options, so the team must either keep him on the roster or risk exposing him to waivers. The Nats were also encouraged by the way Cole finished the 2017 season, with a 2.70 ERA in his last seven appearances. Those are the reasons Cole continues to stand as the favorite to win a spot in the rotation.

"He's been very engaged and getting a lot of work in," Martinez said. "So I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do the rest of this camp."

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, A.J. Cole