Doug Fister's tenure with the Washington Nationals by no means started off on the right foot. He was injured in spring training and didn't debut until May 9 in a trainwreck of a start out in Oakland.
Since, however, Fister has battled through an inconsistent month overall for his team to put in four consecutive strong outings, all resulting in wins for the Nationals. What for a while looked like the start of a long season for the 30-year-old has quickly turned into an extended display of the veteran grit the Nats hoped to acquire when they traded for him back in December.
Fister was brilliant in the Nationals' 10-2 win over the Rangers on Saturday afternoon, recording 10 outs before allowing his first baserunner. He finished with six innings pitched, four hits, two earned runs, a walk and six strikeouts. The walk was just his second of the season in five starts.
"He's great," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You see him bouncing around out there. You see how quick he works. Ton of strikes, it's just an uncomfortable at-bat. He's one of those guys you face and you look up and you're 0-2, 1-2 it seems like every time. He mixed it up great and was throwing everything for strikes. After that first start, he's settled in and been fantastic for us."
Fister - who entered the day with nine career starts against Texas under his belt - sat down with the Nationals' position players before the game to discuss his strategy going in. As a sinkerball, pitch-to-contact hitter, he wanted to give his teammates a heads up as to how he would approach each Rangers batter. That way they would have a better idea of where to position themselves defensively in the event of a groundball coming their way.
That bit of extra preparation impressed his manager.
"He had a really good gameplan," Matt Williams said. "He kind of sat with the position players yesterday and went over it. He has some experience against these guys that the rest of us don't potentially have. So he wanted to sit with them and talk to them about it. But he had a really good gameplan about how to attack them."
Fister is now 3-1 with a 3.34 ERA on the season through five starts, with a 1.08 WHIP and .256 batting average against. Though he missed the first six weeks of the season, he is only one win behind the rotation leader, Stephen Strasburg.
Fister has been extra fortunate with run support from his teammates, hence the victories. The Nationals have averaged 7.3 runs per game in his last four starts, despite only scoring 3.7 as a team in the month of May.
Though it would seem like a coincidence, LaRoche thinks there may be something to it.
"I think there's something there, absolutely," he said. "You get a guy that works quick and is just a contact pitcher. He's not trying to strike everybody out. If they swing at the first pitch, that's what he's shooting for. Here it is, hit it. Hit it into the ground and let the defense work. You're on your toes. Not that we're not with the other pitchers by any means, but he's just one of those that has knack for really quick innings and a lot of strikes."
Fister has a fast windup and delivery and likes to keep his starts moving. As soon as one play ends, he's picking the ball up to begin the next at-bat. It gets the team back into the dugout quickly, ready to go back at it on offense.
"He's got the ability to work quickly, which certainly helps your defense," Williams said. "They expect the ball to be put in play. He throws strikes, with all of his pitches. The radar gun doesn't light up, but he puts it where he wants to."
"I think it may help us defensively, because he grabs the ball and goes. You don't have time to stand defensively… You're on your toes, because you expect the ball to be put in play, and it's happening so quickly."
Though Fister has been lucky in terms of early leads and comfortable margins in games, he says it doesn't affect his gameplan on the mound.
"Honestly, it doesn't change my approach on the game," he said. "I'm always out there as if it's a 0-0 ballgame. We gotta put up zeros on defense. That enables me to stay locked in, that enables us to get quick outs, and get our offense back out there. When they're on like that, they want to get back out there and keep swinging it. Might as well get them back out there."
If you remove Fister's first start of the year, a five earned run-shellacking he took against the A's, his numbers are outstanding over his last four starts. Since that first game he is 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA, 21 strikeouts and two walks in 25 1/3 innings. He has been the Nationals' best starting pitcher in May, a month the team finished with an 11-15 record overall.
The Nationals' rotation has not been as advertised so far this season, as for much of the year they've ranked in the middle of the league in starters ERA. With Fister in the mix now, however, they are rising up the ladder. After Saturday, they now place 11th in the majors with a 3.80 ERA as a unit.
Nationals' starters had the second best ERA in the game in 2012, the year they posted the best record in baseball. They were seventh last year in just their second winning season since moving to Washington, D.C. Starting pitching is what this team is built around, and it appears to be turning a corner.
Fister entered the year as the Nationals' fourth starter, but given the ups and downs of their rotation and how good he has been over his last four starts, he already looks like a central component of the team. He set the tone on Saturday and helped the Nationals end the month of May on a good note, a task that looked a lot tougher before the weekend began.
"We went out there and played hard-nosed baseball. Guys playing defense, running into walls," Fister said. "Everybody's working together, having great communication, that's what a good team does. That's how we're playing right now and that's what we want to keep doing."