DETROIT — It was still late evening Tuesday in Merced, Calif., when Doug Fister climbed the mound at Comerica Park. The firefighters packed the day room inside the Merced Fire Department, huddling in front of the television, rooting for the son of one of their own.
“Oh, yeah, the guys are glued to the playoffs,” Merced Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin said over the phone Tuesday night, a few minutes before first pitch.
Fister carried the full weight of the Detroit Tigers’ season. A loss meant the brink of elimination. A win meant a renewed American League Championship Series. He stayed calm. Fister’s father, Larry Fister, a Merced cop and firefighter for more than 30 years, long ago gave him perspective on pressure.
In the biggest start of his young career, Fister lifted the Tigers to a 5-2 victory over the Texas Rangers, allowing two runs in 71 / 3 innings as the Tigers returned home and sliced their deficit in the series to 2-1. Miguel Cabrera led the hurting Detroit offense with an RBI double and a solo home run while Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta each added solo homers.
The Tigers ensured they would not be swept and instead, after two close losses in Texas, announced they may make it a series yet.
“We’ve been doing this the whole year,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “We’re either going to win this thing or go down with what we’ve got.”
The Tigers can thank Fister, the 27-year-old, 6-foot-8 sinkerballer they acquired in a midseason trade from the Seattle Mariners. He struck out three, walked none and faced five batters over the minimum. Fister allowed only one runner past second base after the first three hitters he faced singled.
As ever, Fister relied on his father’s influence on the mound. The Tigers traded for Fister in part because they believed he could thrive in moments like Tuesday night, and he can because of his background and his father.
“He was always stressing, what you do during practice is what you do under pressure situations,” Fister said. “If you’re in stressful situations, you have to stay calm and rely on what you’re trained. That’s what you revert back to. That’s something that has always stuck in my mind. I tried to apply it no matter what situation I’m in.”
Before the Tigers traded for Fister at the deadline, General Manager Dave Dombrowski said, front office executives and coaches called people they knew around the game and asked about Fister. They wanted to know if he could handle the pressure of a pennant chase and the postseason. Invariably, the answer was yes.
“He’s got the perfect mentality for this,” said reliever David Pauley, who came to the Tigers with Fister. “He’s the type of guy, very little bothers him. Whatever the situation, whatever the score is, he knows what his game plan is. He rarely differs from that.”
Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA following his arrival. With his team’s season on the brink Tuesday, Fister responded with the best starting pitching performance yet in the ALCS. In his home town, they cheered him on. Larry Fister was a Merced policeman for 13 years, then switched to the fire department, where he rose to the rank of captain, for the next 20.
“Larry, he was solid,” McLaughlin said. “Just a solid officer for our organization. It took a lot to get him rattled.”
Fister still stays in touch with his father’s co-workers. McLaughlin recalled one Merced firefighter this season had been injured in the line of duty and watched Fister pitch on television. “He had been in the hospital, and he was watching Doug pitch for the Tigers,” McLaughlin said. “He came off the mound and the phone rang. It was Doug, checking to make sure he was doing okay. The guy goes, ‘Aren’t you pitching?’ ”
“I’ve got a lot of friends back home who are firefighters, and my hat goes off to them,” Fister said. “They’re putting their life on the line every day. It’s a question every time they go to work if they’re going to come home or not. It’s something that gives me goosebumps to talk about. Every time my dad went to work, it was always that question. It was always in the back of my mind — hopefully, tomorrow, he’s coming home at 8 o’ clock.”
Tuesday night, Fister faced immediate adversity. Ian Kinsler smoked the game’s first pitch into left field for a single, and the Rangers took an instant lead on two cheap singles, a chopper by Elvis Andrus and a blooper by Josh Hamilton. Fister had allowed a run before he threw his first ball, but he never panicked.
Catcher Alex Avila “and I really focused on doing the same thing from the get-go,” Fister said. “We were going to attack the zone with our fastball and keep it down. We stuck to our guns.”
It worked. Fister “put on a pitching clinic” for the rest of the game, Leyland said. He threw strikes to both sides of the plate, sinkers that the Rangers drilled into the dirt. Despite his frame, Fister throws in the low 90s and uses precision rather than power.
“He surprises guys because he doesn’t throw 95,” Pauley said. “That deception is what carries him through the game.”
As he settled down, the Tigers’ offense came to life, even if they have reached the point where injuries spoil even their best moments. Martinez, the designated hitter, tied the game at 1 with a home run to lead off the fourth inning.
Before the ball sailed into the seats, Martinez winced and grabbed the right side of his lower back. He hobbled around the bases in more of a walk than a trot. After Martinez crossed the plate, he ambled back to the dugout. Martinez slapped a few hands, slammed his helmet to the ground and stomped down the tunnel to the clubhouse with a strained intercostal muscle.
“The only way I’m not playing tomorrow is if I wake up dead,” Martinez said.
He joined the Tigers’ infirmed. Left fielder Delmon Young could not start Tuesday after playing Monday through an oblique injury. Avila is squatting with a balky knee and entered Tuesday 2 for 25 in the postseason. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez is done for the season with a broken ankle. Before the playoffs began, outfielder Brennan Boesch suffered a thumb injury that knocked him out for the season.
These Tigers are tough, though, like the city they come from. When Hamilton accidentally launched his bat into the crowd, it struck a man wearing a Justin Verlander jersey in the back of the head. He iced the spot where he got hit with a cold beer.
“That’s hardcore Detroit,” outfielder Don Kelly said.
A group of Tigers fans out in Merced, the ones who helped shape the winning pitcher, could appreciate it, too.