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Cole struggles as Nats lose 1st game of 2018

MLB.com @JamalCollier

ATLANTA -- This city was the sight of A.J. Cole's Major League debut three years ago, back when he was still a prospect. He has spent each season since then bouncing in and out of the Nationals' rotation and the Minors as a spot starter until this spring, when he emerged as the team's fifth starter and made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career.

Cole's grip on that spot may have already been tenuous, however, and his performance during Tuesday night's 13-6 loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park did not inspire much confidence.

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ATLANTA -- This city was the sight of A.J. Cole's Major League debut three years ago, back when he was still a prospect. He has spent each season since then bouncing in and out of the Nationals' rotation and the Minors as a spot starter until this spring, when he emerged as the team's fifth starter and made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career.

Cole's grip on that spot may have already been tenuous, however, and his performance during Tuesday night's 13-6 loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park did not inspire much confidence.

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After being spotted a three-run lead in the first inning, Cole promptly allowed four runs in the bottom half. He helped himself out in surprising fashion with his first career home run in the second, but he surrendered another four-spot in the bottom of that frame. Cole let up a run in the third and fourth innings before being removed with two outs in the fourth. He was tagged for 10 runs on 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings, matching a Nationals record for runs given up in a single start.

The Nationals' offense tried to do its part, with Ryan Zimmerman's two-run homer in the first inning and Bryce Harper's solo shot in the third, but Cole could not shut down the Braves.

"I was just trying to go into the game like any other game, just trying to compete and go after guys," Cole said. "I fell behind, and that hurt me."

Video: WSH@ATL: Zimmerman belts a two-run homer in the 1st

Washington made Cole its fifth starter to begin the season after he showed promise with a strong finish to end 2017. And while the team said it had confidence in his ability, the club also signed veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson late this spring. Hellickson was lined up to pitch on the same day as Cole, throwing about 80-90 pitches at extended spring training. Perhaps, his next start will come in D.C.

The Nationals might not need a fifth starter during their next turn through the rotation. They have an off-day built into the schedule and there is threat of inclement weather for Saturday's game at Nationals Park. So it is possible they could skip this spot and throw their top four starters -- each of whom had stellar debuts -- on regular rest if they would prefer.

When they do need a fifth starter, it is unclear whether they will once again turn to Cole. Manager Dave Martinez did not commit to giving Cole another start the next turn through the rotation, although he did say he wanted to get Cole back out on the mound to turn the page on this disappointing outing.

"We'll talk about it," Martinez said. "Who knows what will happen with the crazy weather we're having? But yeah, we've got to get him back out there."

Video: WSH@ATL: Martinez on Cole's outing in 13-6 loss

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Behind for the first time: The Nationals have scored in the first inning in all five games this season, which included spotting Cole a three-run lead thanks to a two-run homer from Zimmerman. But he could not hold it thanks to a big day from Braves left fielder Preston Tucker, who hammered a three-run homer to put Atlanta ahead. It also marked the first time all season that the Nationals trailed at the end of an inning, snapping their streak of 36, the longest to begin a season in franchise history.

Video: WSH@ATL: Tucker launches a three-run smash to right

Freeman gives Braves cushion: Washington battled back to tie the game at 4 in the second on Cole's home run before Atlanta erupted for another four-run inning. Freddie Freeman provided the biggest blow by belting a three-run homer off Cole to extend the lead to 8-4, as the Braves never looked back.

Video: WSH@ATL: Freeman unloads a three-run homer to right

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Harper homered for the third consecutive game when he launched a leadoff home run in the third off Braves right-hander Julio Teheran. It was Harper's fourth homer of the season and his eighth against Teheran, the most he has against any pitcher.

Cole's solo shot in the second was his first career home run in the Majors or at any point in his professional baseball career.

"I told him to keep his head up," Martinez said, "and nice home run."

Video: Must C Crushed: Harper hits fourth HR in three games

WHAT'S NEXT
Max Scherzer will take the mound for today's series finale against the Braves, looking to build off a strong 2018 debut, when he struck out 10 in six scoreless innings on Opening Day against the Reds. His outing included a span where he fanned seven consecutive batters. First pitch is scheduled for 12:10 p.m. ET.

Watch every out-of-market regular-season game live on MLB.TV.

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

Washington Nationals, A.J. Cole