"Well, there's always a guy that slides in under the radar," manager Dusty Baker said prior to the game. "Sometimes you don't know who's going to be the man, and who's not."
Cole was the victim of one bad inning Thursday, when he allowed a pair of homers in the third. Peter Bourjos began the inning with a solo blast off the left-field foul pole, and Ryan Howard sat on a changeup and launched it for a three-run homer to center. Still, Cole turned in a solid outing, with eight strikeouts and no walks.
He has been steady since he was initially promoted from the Minors on Aug. 22, when Strasburg was scratched from his start in Baltimore with right elbow soreness. Cole has accumulated a 4.56 ERA but has struck out 25 batters with only seven walks in 23 2/3 innings, which compares favorably to some of the Nationals' other options -- Giolito (5.59 ERA in five appearances) and Lopez (5.52 ERA in six starts), for example.
"He's done well," Baker said. "He doesn't have many walks. He throws strikes. He uses his secondary pitches well."
Ross seems to be nearing a return, but for the time being, the Nationals still have to fill two spots in their rotation. Cole seems to have secured one of them, with an opportunity to step up during the stretch run for Washington.
"I've always believed in myself as being a big league pitcher," Cole said. "I've got to be able to show that, and that's what I'm trying to do right now. I have the stuff to throw it. I just need to go out there and compete."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.