Cole struck out the first two batters he faced -- Dexter Fowler looking and Tommy Pham swinging. He didn't allow a hit until Randy Arozarena's leadoff triple into the right-center-field gap in the third inning. Cole stranded him at third by striking out pitcher Sean Gilmartin and getting -- quite fortunately -- Fowler to smash a line drive right at drawn-in second baseman Matt Reynolds, who caught it and doubled off Arozarena.
"I liked what I saw," manager Dave Martinez said. "He pitched really well."
Cole missed his last scheduled start because of illness. In his most recent appearance, a March 6 loss to Houston, Cole allowed three runs on five hits in three innings.
Between that outing and Sunday, Cole repositioned his hand angle during bullpen sessions, returning it to where it had been in previous years and adding deception to his pitches.
"That seemed to really help the ball coming out," Cole said.
Cole, 26, has been battling Erick Fedde all spring for the final rotation spot. The dynamic of that battle changed dramatically on Saturday, when Washington signed the eight-year veteran Hellickson to a Minor League contract.
Should Hellickson claim the fifth starting spot, the Nationals would likely have to send Cole, who is out of options, to the bullpen or pass him through waivers before reassigning him to the Minor Leagues.
"I'm going to do whatever they want me to do, but I'm here for that fifth spot," Cole said. "I want to be a starter first."
Even if that means starting in the Minor leagues over relieving in the Majors?
"That's a tough question to answer," Cole said.
Fedde still has options remaining, and he is likely headed to Triple-A Syracuse.
Cole said the addition of Hellickson didn't alter his approach to Sunday's outing.
"I really don't try to read into any of that," Cole said. "I'm just out there competing and doing my thing, and whatever happens there, I'm out here trying to get that fifth spot."
Cole posted a 3-5 record with a 3.81 ERA over 11 appearances (eight starts) for Washington in 2017. Pitching as both a starter and a reliever during the final month of last season, Cole recorded a 3.00 ERA, striking out 18 in 24 innings.
"We told him, 'Your last seven starts, you were a Major League pitcher,'" Martinez said. "'Build off of that and continue to do what you need to do to get ready.'"
Hellickson arrived in Nationals camp on Saturday and threw a bullpen session.
"He threw really well," Martinez said. "We were excited to see that."
Hellickson is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut in one of Friday's split-squad games. Cole is on track to get the ball in that day's other game.
Chuck King is a contributor to MLB.com and covered the Nationals on Sunday.