Updated at 6:02 p.m.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Doug Fister, who already was trying to catch up to the rest of his rotation mates after losing three weeks to elbow inflammation, is now likely to open the season on the disabled list after departing a minor-league start Thursday after only one inning with a strain of his right lat muscle.
“It certainly is a setback,” manager Matt Williams said.
Fister was scheduled to throw 60-to-65 pitches in a minor-league game in Viera, then travel with pitching coach Steve McCatty to Port St. Lucie and join the rest of the Nationals on their charter flight home. But the right-hander told McCatty before taking the mound he had some tightness on his right side, then was pulled after a 15-pitch first inning.
“I [told Fister], ‘I really don’t want to do this, but if you feel something in there, is it something you can pitch through? I really would like to shut this off,’” McCatty said. “He shook his head and agreed. He felt a little tugging in there. So we stopped.”
Fister is scheduled to be examined Friday by team orthopedist Wiemi Douoguih in Washington. The Nationals won’t know his status until after that exam, but the odds of the 30-year-old being able to begin the season on-time appear miniscule.
“We’ll see what the doc says,” Williams said. “It’s a little early to tell right now. But we’ll get the report tomorrow and see where we’re at.”
Even if the lat strain is deemed insignificant, Fister almost certainly wouldn’t have enough time to build his arm up to the point where he could pitch in a big-league game by April 6 (the first date the Nationals need to use a fifth starter).
After missing three weeks with the elbow inflammation, Fister had pitched only two innings in a minor-league game and then 3 2/3 innings against the Marlins on Saturday. He threw 47 pitches in that most-recent start and was scheduled to build up to 60-to-65 on Thursday. Even without the setback, he would have needed to make one more minor-league start in Florida on Tuesday, building his pitch count up to at least 80 before club officials would have been comfortable letting him pitch in a regular-season game.
“You’ve got to be cautious about something like this,” McCatty said. “He threw 15 pitches. He had 45 left. I was not going to let him attempt to get through it. If I told him he was alright to go, he probably would have went out there. You’ve got to be smart in those situations.”
Though the Nationals were counting on Fister — their biggest offseason acquisition — to help anchor their rotation entering the season, they are well-equipped to deal with his absence, at least on a short-term basis. Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan remained in big-league camp through Thursday’s finale, and both are scheduled to pitch in Saturday’s exhibition game at Nationals Park.
It now appears there will be room for both young right-handers to make the Opening Day rotation, with one starting the April 4 home opener against the Braves and the other starting two days later in the series finale against Atlanta.
The biggest reason the Nationals had waited to choose a No. 5 starter between Roark and Jordan was to make sure first that Fister would be ready to go. Turns out they were right to delay that decision.
“Well, yeah,” Williams said. “That, and they both earned the right to pitch. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see how [Fister] feels tomorrow, what the doctor says, where we’re at. But right now we just know he couldn’t make it through his start today.”