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The California League has victimized many top pitching prospects through the years, and Oakland's A.J. Cole became the latest casualty when he was sent down from High-A Stockton to Low-A Burlington last month. But it's all in how you bounce back, and the 6'4'' right-hander has done just that as a member of the Bees' rotation.
A consensus top-100 prospect in all of Major League Baseball going into 2012, Cole - the prize addition in the Gio Gonzalez trade with Washington last offseason - carried with him high expectations to his new ballclub. But for a number of reasons, it didn't work out for Cole with the Ports, as he posted an 0-7 record and 7.83 ERA while allowing an astonishing 60 hits over 38.2 innings.
"I started up in Stockton and had all my pitches, but certain things were off," said Cole, who was originally selected by Washington in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.
"Not every pitch was there, location-wise, so they thought the best thing for me was to bring me down here and I kind of agreed with them.
"They didn't tell me what they had in mind. Personally, I think they want me to succeed and don't want to keep me in a level where I'm getting hit more than I'm used to. They probably didn't want me to lose my confidence, so they moved me down a level to get back into it and move from there."
It seems a step back is what Cole needed to put himself on the road to recovery. In his last four starts (including a rain-shortened outing June 3 at Quad Cities), the talented righty has allowed just three earned runs on 11 hits over 17 innings, striking out 19 and walking five.
"I'm getting my confidence back by making pitches," he said.
"Something within my motion, mechanics-wise, I think I've found it. The last (three) games have basically shown it for me. All I have to do is keep on top of it and going hard at it. I think it will pay off."
Overall, he has posted a 2-0 record and 3.22 ERA over 22.1 innings. During that span, his K:BB ratio is sitting at a clip above 4:1.
Cole put together his best effort of the season Tuesday night in Cedar Rapids, picking up the 2-1 victory over the division-rival Kernels. He allowed just three hits and one earned run in six innings, while striking out six. Cole consistently worked in the 93-95 MPH range with his fastball and threw all of his pitches effectively.
Whatever the secret, the A's brass has to be happy with the results thus far.
"I've been looking at old videos and pictures of me to try to see what I did before," Cole said. "You can never work backwards, so you can't just go back to what worked before in Low-A when you could get away with throwing fastballs and sliders.
"I'm staying with all my pitches and working on them. Even if people hit them, you've still got to work on them. I can't get down on myself if they hit a good pitch – you've got to keep doing it."
Cole attributes much of his success to having more consistent mechanics.
"I've never really taken anything off [to improve my command]," Cole said.
"I don't try to overthrow, either. It's just a nice, easy motion with my fastball. Some days it might be harder than others, depending on how I feel that day and how fluent my mechanics are being with me. Everything has to work in sync and stay the same, so each day should be the same as the day before."
The Winter Springs, Florida, native joined the Bees in late May, in time to make his first start on the 24th against Kane County. It wasn't the best of outings for Cole, as he allowed eight runs (five earned) on 12 hits and struck out six through five innings. But he says it wasn't as lackluster as some would think.
"The first game I threw when I came down, I didn't even feel like I threw that bad," Cole said.
"I almost feel like it was a little bit of a fluke how well I got hit. I was making really good pitches. You can't get down on that. I had to go out the next time and prove to myself that I can get people out throwing the exact same stuff. I went out and didn't let the last game bug me and have stayed ahead from there."
With every outing since, that first effort against the Cougars is proving to be more and more of a fluke.
But will it lead to a promotion back to the California League? Cole isn't sure what the A's have in store for him in the near-future.
"I can do my best getting back into things and dominating this league the best I can, getting my pitches to perfection, but the final decision comes down to what they feel I should do," Cole said.
"I have no decision on whether I should go up. So I'm going to stay down here and do my work until they want me to go back up."
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