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Cole right at home in strong spring debut

Pitching near birthplace, Nats' fifth-starter candidate K's 3 in 2 IP
Special to MLB.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before Thursday's 6-2 victory over the Braves, Nationals manager Dave Martinez said he wanted to see right-handed starter A.J. Cole continue the theme of his live batting practice in Spring Training.

"I like what I see -- he's got electric stuff," Martinez said. "So far he's done well this camp, working his butt off."

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before Thursday's 6-2 victory over the Braves, Nationals manager Dave Martinez said he wanted to see right-handed starter A.J. Cole continue the theme of his live batting practice in Spring Training.

"I like what I see -- he's got electric stuff," Martinez said. "So far he's done well this camp, working his butt off."

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Cole displayed a bit of that electric stuff across two scoreless innings, limiting Atlanta to two hits and one walk. He appeared most comfortable throwing from the stretch at Champion Stadium, which is less than an hour from Cole's birthplace, Winter Springs, Fla., and his alma mater, Oviedo High School. He said his parents were among familiar faces in attendance.

"It's close to home," Cole said of the stadium. "I've grown up playing travel ball here, so I'm familiar with it. It's kind of cool to be back."

After getting Ender Inciarte to fly out to left and Danny Santana to ground to second on four pitches combined, Cole seemed to be breezing through his first inning. But then he walked Johan Camargo, and Nick Markakis singled Camargo to third with a bloop into left field. Markakis advanced to second base on left fielder Brian Goodwin's throw to third, suddenly causing a jam for Cole. Charlie Culberson struck out looking on Cole's 19th pitch to end the threat.

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"I got behind a little bit and made it tougher to pitch," Cole said of the first. "I got two quick outs, and then I started getting behind -- I can't do that. I throw a lot of pitches [as a result]. So that second inning, I went in trying to get ahead of them, throw my pitches. I did a lot better."

Said Martinez: "He was good. I liked him. He threw strikes, got out of a little bit of a jam there, and looked good -- real good. They're working on getting ahead of hitters, and they've been good."

In the bottom of the second with one out, Rio Ruiz doubled off the left-center-field wall on a smash that narrowly evaded Goodwin's glove. Cole again quelled the Braves' scoring opportunity, striking out Lane Adams and Rob Brantly swinging at sliders.

"It's always nice to show your team you can get out of it if you let a runner on," Cole said. "My fielders are doing a heck of a job trying to help me. Brian almost had a heck of a catch out there."

Cole threw 15 pitches in the second, leaving him with 34. He got 22 across for strikes and struck out three.

"I worked a lot in the offseason for getting my offspeed pitches ready, and I feel like I did a pretty good job," Cole said. "The mound was a little soft, so I made some adjustments in the second inning and felt a lot better."

He said improving his offspeed pitches -- slider, curve and changeup -- was the key to proving he could start for the Nats. He pointed to a different source as the biggest factor in his growth, though.

"Rather than weight?" Cole asked, producing laughter regarding his oft-mentioned enhanced muscle mass. "I learned a lot from being up here with the older guys. ... We've got some big guys: [Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg]. They've been around the game for a while. ... They encourage the younger guys to come up to them and ask them questions."

"Absolutely," Martinez said of the slider being an out pitch for Cole. "He's got a really good changeup, too. I really like his changeup. He can mix all three in. He's going to be really good. He's getting better with it too, really been helping him with different grips and stuff like that."

Cole described how gaining weight helped him in numerous facets. Martinez agreed the weight gain would help the hurler's health both on and off the field.

"It just helps with longevity, the stamina and everything behind it," Cole said. "My arm feels a lot better. The weight in the legs, the strength, just all seems to help."

Zak Kerr is a contributor to MLB.com.

Washington Nationals, A.J. Cole