The Atlanta Braves had defeated the Washington Nationals through every means baseball makes available and at the expense of every quadrant of their team. But the Braves had never confronted the force coming at them Saturday night. They had not faced the alpha pitcher from Merced, Calif., who can do the splits, lay down a sac bunt and take apart the front end of ’70 Monte Carlo without the manual. They had not seen 6 feet 8 inches of elbows and knees and sinkers from hell. The Braves had not dealt with Doug Fister.
The Nationals had grown sick and tired of questions about why they could not beat the Braves, and for one night Fister silenced them. He led the Nationals back into first place by throwing eight scoreless innings in a 3-0 victory over their divisional nemeses. The Nationals eked out enough offense against Atlanta right-hander Julio Teheran as Anthony Rendon went 3 for 4 with two RBI and Ryan Zimmerman added an RBI single. But in his first start against the Braves as a member of the Nationals, Fister carried them.
In the eighth inning, Fister fired his 117th pitch of the night to Evan Gattis, a bear-sized man on a 20-game hitting streak. He popped it to right field. Fister pointed to the sky and traced the ball’s flight with his index finger. He clapped the inside of his mitt as Jayson Werth squeezed it. The crowd rose as Fister marched off the field with his glove on his left hip. As he reached the dugout, Fister lifted his cap.
“I was ready,” Fister said. “I had expended everything I had tonight.”
In the best start of his already sparkling Nationals tenure, Fister allowed five hits and one walk and struck out three. He induced 12 groundball outs, and on the rare occasions he found trouble, he blasted his way out with a cannonball sinker. Fister’s ERA dropped to 2.65, and in his ninth start he earned his sixth win, tied for the team lead.
“We all knew what he was capable of when we traded for him,” said Tyler Clippard, part of a bullpen that had thrown seven innings Friday night and needed only Rafael Soriano’s perfect ninth Saturday. “He’s a rock right now for us. He works quick, goes deep into games. Everything you want out of a starter. I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s legit.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Nationals will aim for a split of their four-game series behind Tanner Roark, which would allow them to reclaim the 11 / 2 -game lead in the National League East they carried into the series. They had beaten the Braves for the just the second time in nine meetings this season — “It can be done,” Clippard said.
Once big league hitters reach base, they tend to drift into conversation with the first baseman. Fister allowed only six men on, and most of them came to Adam LaRoche slack-jawed at the way Fister’s sinker danced.
“One of them asked if they changed the balls for Doug,” LaRoche said. “He wanted to know if they switched them with the Wiffle balls with all the holes, it was moving so much.”
The Nationals have played some of their best, most crisp games when Fister starts, and there is no coincidence in that. Fielders love to play behind his get-it-and-go pace. Rendon said he laughs when he sees Fister waiting on the umpire to tell him when he can throw the first pitch every inning.
“That’s the game as a pitcher,” Fister said. “You control the game, and they react to you.”
The most arduous part of Fister’s evening came at the beginning. With one out, the Braves had runners on the corners and Gattis standing at the plate. In difficult situations, Fister doubles down on what makes him effective. He trusts his sinker will incite weak contact. He behaves as if the runners on base behind him are invisible. He tells his catcher through a series of headshakes what he will throw, and he goes to work.
“I’m going to put in play and let the dense work,” Fister said. “I don’t change the game plan at all. I’m trying to get bad contact, a popup, whatever it takes.”
Gattis flared a soft liner to second. Jason Heyward ripped a grounder up the middle, and Danny Espinosa made the kind of play that gives the Nationals pause about benching him once Bryce Harper comes off the disabled list. Espinosa slid on one knee, snared the ball with a backhand and fired a sidearm throw to second for the out.
The Nationals struck in the third. Catcher Jose Lobaton poked a single to right field. Fister, capable with the bat, bunted him to second. Denard Span flied out, and Rendon came to bat with two outs.
Teheran threw Rendon a 2-0, 94-mph fastball at the thighs, the kind of cry-for-help pitch Rendon feasts on. He stroked a laser into center field. Third base coach Bobby Henley windmilled Lobaton home. Upton’s thrown zipped home. Werth, the on-deck hitter, knelt and pointed at the back-right corner of the plate. “Get down!” he yelled. Lobaton dove headfirst and swiped home with his left hand, evading Gattis’s tag to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
“He’s a big guy,” Lobaton said. “I said, ‘I got a better chance to go in like that.’ In that moment, it’s instincts.”
In the fifth, Fister’s only walk of the night came to Heyward with two outs, and it put two men on base. Fister started Justin Upton with two balls, and for a moment it seemed as if he may be in trouble. He threw a sinker, and Upton fouled it off, and he threw another. Upton skied a popup to second base. Fister looked over his shoulder at the ball in the air, and as he walked off the mound, head down, he heard it smack into Espinosa’s glove. What trouble?
“It’s his rhythm,” Manager Matt Williams said. “He works fast anyway. Just because somebody gets on, he doesn’t want to change that.”
Zimmerman’s single and Rendon’s bullet off the center field fence added insurance, and the frenzied crowd roared after Soriano’s 16th save. In the Nationals’ clubhouse afterward, on his way into the shower, Fister passed Lobaton, heading home for the night. He had just thrown eight masterful innings, and the Nationals’ rock was already looking ahead.
“We need nine next time,” Lobaton told him, laughing.
“Nine next time,” Fister said.