Doug Fister, Washington Nationals come out flat as Oakland rolls, 8-0

With Doug Fister and Wilson Ramos returning from injuries this week, the Post Sports Live crew debates whether the starting pitcher or catcher will have a bigger impact on the Nationals. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Since he was acquired by the Washington Nationals in a trade this winter, Doug Fister yearned for this moment. For the season’s first 34 games, the towering right-handed starter was elsewhere other than a major league mound, in a game and in a Nationals uniform. He was part of the team, but hadn’t done anything on the field after straining a lat muscle in the final week of spring training.

Fister, the prized offseason acquisition, climbed onto the O.co Coliseum mound on Friday night to finally make his Nationals debut. It was short and anything but sweet. Pitching not far from where he grew up, Fister’s rust showed against Oakland. He allowed seven runs, only two of which were unearned, on nine hits over 41 / 3 innings in a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Athletics. The sinkerballer’s stuff and command were off, and the Athletics clobbered his mistakes.

“Lack of execution,” Fister said, matter-of-factly after the loss. “I failed [Friday night]. And didn’t go out there and get the job done.”

An ugly running theme through the Nationals’ season so far also reappeared. The Nationals’ pace of defensive mistakes had slowed of late, but three errors on Friday vaulted them into third place in the majors with 32 errors in 35 games. On plays immediately following throwing miscues by Fister and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Nationals surrendered runs.

“We need to work on that,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “That’s too many errors. We have to fix that.”

The Nationals mustered next to nothing against starter Tommy Milone, whom the Athletics acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade in 2011. The left-hander shut down his former team with battery mate Derek Norris, also part of that deal. Milone allowed only two hits and five base runners through eight innings, striking out seven. 

The Nationals won’t fret about a rough start to Fister’s season. The 6-foot-8 right-hander has a strong track record over five major league seasons. From 2011 to 2013, mostly with the Detroit Tigers, Fister posted a 3.30 ERA and averaged 196 innings. His 13.1 WAR (wins above replacement) was the 10th-highest total among starting pitchers in that span. 

The most encouraging development of the game, Manager Matt Williams said, was that Fister’s body and arm felt good after the game.

In the days leading up to the start, Williams likened Fister to a pitcher in the final stage of spring training, ready to pitch but not yet in peak form. Fister would be on a pitch limit for the game, too.

After the game, Williams said Fister’s extra rest in between starts was a factor. “Ball just wasn’t sinking much and that’s probably a case of maybe feeling too good,” Williams said. Fister’s last rehab start was on May 2 and could have started on Wednesday but was pushed back two days to keep Stephen Strasburg on five days rest. As a result, Fister threw two bullpens sessions in between starts. Fister wouldn’t admit that was a factor.

“No matter what day you pitch it’s a matter of going out there and executing,” he said. “Whether you’re a little sore or feeling great, you just gotta make the adjustment, and I didn’t make the adjustment.”

In the bottom of the first inning, Fister jogged from the visitor’s dugout at O.co Coliseum and onto the mound. Fister, who grew up nearly two hours away in Merced, had family and friends in attendance for his first game with his new team.
Three batters into his start, however, Fister was in trouble. Josh Donaldson hit a groundball in between the mound and third base and Fister, an agile man for his size, unfurled a wild throw wide of first baseman Kevin Frandsen. Because of the large foul territory at O.co Coliseum, Donaldson raced safely to third. “I threw it in right field which is unacceptable,” he said.

The Nationals trend of allowing unearned runs continued on the next play. A high sinker to the next batter, Brandon Moss, yielded an RBI single and the Nationals trailed 1-0. Fister’s struggled to keep his pitches low in the strike zone continued in the third inning when he surrendered a leadoff solo home run to John Jaso on a high sinker.

Fister coughed up back-to-back singles to open the fourth inning and then uncorked a wild pitch in the dirt that scored a run. With the infield in and down 3-0 with one out, Fister hung a curveball to Eric Sogard, who smacked it into right field to tack on another run. 

“A lot of pitches the top of the zone,” Ramos said. “Every hitter looking for that. But that was the first time. We’ve got a long season.”

Fister has made a living in the major leagues by inducing groundouts, but he did little of that in his first start. Last season, 54 percent of balls in play against Fister were groundballs and 24 percent were flyballs. As a result, Fister didn’t allow many home runs; only 14 in 2082 / 3 innings with Detroit last season. Against the Athletics, Fister induced four groundouts and six flyouts, and allowed three home runs.

The woes in the fifth inning began when Rendon fired a low throw across the diamond to Frandsen, a utility man making his first start of the season at first base for a hobbled Adam LaRoche. On Fister’s first pitch to the next batter, a high curveball to Moss, he gave up a two-run home run to center field. The next pitch to Yoenis Cespedes yielded an opposite field solo shot and a 7-0 Athletics lead. 

With his pitch count at 79 and the game out of reach, Williams came out to get Fister, ending his Nationals debut 21 pitches shy of his limit and far short of expectation.

“The game of baseball is pretty difficult when it comes to ups and downs,” Fister said. “It’s a matter of trying to stay as even keel as possible. Kinda forget about it [Friday night] and make sure that [Saturday] is a new day. Obviously make the adjustment, know what I need to work on [Saturday] and do that.”​

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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