Doug Fister joined the Nationals this past winter under unexpected circumstances.
Fister had just finished his second full season with the Tigers, going 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 208 2/3 innings. He followed that up by compiling a 2.40 ERA in two postseason starts, though Detroit fell to the eventual-champion Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
The right-hander was gearing up for another season at Comerica Park. But late in the night on Dec. 2, the Tigers dealt the consistent and battled-tested Fister to Washington in exchange for infielder Steve Lombardozzi, left-hander Ian Krol and Minor League pitcher Robbie Ray -- a move that left fans and Fister scratching their heads.
"Obviously, [I was] surprised," Fister said. "There wasn't any precursor coming up to it or anything."
Fister's mood quickly changed, though, when phone calls and text messages started pouring in from Nationals players, welcoming him to his new home. Part of the reason for the group's impressive outreach stemmed from Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, who, according to Ian Desmond, gave the Nats a "scouting report" on Fister's renowned presence as a team-first player.
"It's all held true," Desmond said.
It was the subtle collective gesture Fister needed to replace his confusion with excitement, and his commitment to the organization -- not only as a pitcher, but also as a teammate -- has never wavered.
"That's something that makes the whole process of going into new territory, a new team and everything else a lot easier," Fister said. "And I've loved it ever since."
The Nationals have loved him right back, as Fister has exceeded expectations on the field. He's gone 9-2 with a 2.92 ERA and walked just 10 batters over 13 starts and 81 1/3 innings so far this season.
However, Fister's ability to contribute early in the season was delayed due to multiple injuries during Spring Training. First, he encountered elbow inflammation on March 2 after a Grapefruit League start against the Marlins. The 6-foot-8-inch hurler worked his way back onto the field after several weeks, only to strain his right lat muscle pitching against Minor Leaguers on March 27.
The second injury required a stint on the 15-day disabled list and forced Fister to miss the first month of the season. And for a fierce competitor like Fister, watching hopelessly from the dugout during a time when he should have been proving his worth to new teammates and coaches transformed his excitement into frustration.
As he always has, though, Fister found a way to be productive even if he couldn't play. He was the team's biggest cheerleader, and he made sure to always provide an ear to anybody wanting to talk baseball -- or anything, for that matter.
"I tried to not let any time go by and waste," Fister said. "I spent [it] working on the relationships with the guys and learning what it takes to interact with each one.
"I put extra effort into knowing these guys. I didn't know anybody coming into it, so I felt like [we grew] together in a short time as much as you can without playing."
Fister put his injuries behind him and made his debut on May 9 against the Athletics. And though it was his worst outing of the season -- he surrendered seven runs (five earned) on nine hits over 4 1/3 innings -- the right-hander said it was a relief to finally get back on the field.
"There was some extra energy there," Fister said.
Fister rebounded during his next six starts, limiting opponents to two or fewer runs and eight or fewer hits in each appearance.
And apart from a shaky outing at the Cardinals on June 15 in which he allowed four earned runs over seven innings, Fister's success has continued through the All-Star break and into the second half, as he's earned wins in four of his last five starts.
In essence, Fister has provided the Nationals' starting rotation with exactly what it was missing: a quick-working, strike-zone-pounding workhouse who places complete faith in the defense behind him. Between Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats are stacked with legitimate strikeout pitchers. Fister, meanwhile, as a sinkerballer, pitches to contact.
Fister's goal in every start is to induce 27 ground-ball outs in 27 pitches. A nearly impossible feat, yes, but it forces him to not stray away from the approach that has made him effective during his six-year Major League career.
"It was something I had to focus on," Fister said. "I wasn't a big strikeout guy. I've never really been a big strikeout guy. So I go out there and try to get as much bad contact as possible as early as possible to allow me to go deeper in games."
Couple that commitment to throwing strikes with a lightning-fast pace while on the mound, and you have a fielder's dream. Fister is exactly that.
Watch one Fister start, and this unique aspect of his baseball DNA becomes apparent. He takes as little time in between pitches as possible, partly to disrupt the hitter's timing and partly to help him find his "groove." But mostly, it's because Fister understands what kind of impact a fast pace can have on the defense behind him, because he was once a first baseman in college at Fresno State, where his quick motion originated.
"[The tempo] helps out the offense, because you're not sitting on the field for 20-minute half innings; and it helps your defense, because you're always on your toes," Desmond said. "You're always focused and alert to what's going on."
Fister's uniqueness doesn't stop there. Unlike most pitchers in the Major Leagues today, the right-hander never looks at scouting reports -- a method he deemed "a little on the old-school side." His approach from hitter to hitter never changes, regardless of tendencies or hot zones.
Fister's fastball averages 88 mph, according to Fangraphs.com, but that doesn't mean he's afraid to throw it. The mindset is simple: any pitch in any count to any batter.
"If I start worrying about what this guy does or what that guys does, I stray away from ... my strengths," Fister said. "Why do I want to go out there and throw a guy my second- or third-best pitch when I have confidence in my first and [can] go out there and go to battle with it?"
That fearlessness has rubbed off on right-hander Tanner Roark, the Nationals' young sinkerballer who has established himself as a key member of the team's five-man rotation thanks to a career-best season.
Roark is a beneficiary of Fister's inadvertent teachings, the result of the duo's insistent eagerness to discuss baseball. With another Nats pitcher on the mound, Roark said he sits next to Fister and asks him what pitch he would have thrown in a given situation. Most importantly, Roark watches intently when Fister is on the mound.
"We talk a lot," Roark said. "Just pick his brain and learn from him."
In the days following the trade for Fister, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo raved about the 30-year-old right-hander's playoff experience -- he's 3-2 with a 2.98 ERA in seven postseason starts, including one in the 2012 World Series with the Tigers.
Eight months later, the Nats have built a one-game lead in the National League East, but they continue to jostle with the Braves in a fierce pennant race.
So despite Fister's seamless transition into the Nationals' clubhouse and his tremendous performance on the field so far this season, the most crucial days in Washington may very well lie ahead.
"He's definitely got a lot experience," Roark said. "He's got a lot of knowledge up there in his head."