“I don’t know if it was a surprise or what you would call it,” said Fister, a month or so later, of the move to the bullpen. “Obviously not one of my first choices to do. But having the positivity, a positive mind-set going into it, having the ability to say you know what, this is a challenge.”
That his literal move to the bullpen that afternoon was handled without any visible frustration or indication from Fister – it was not until Matt Williams addressed the media after the game that day that the public learned of his quiet conversion – tells Fister’s story as well as anything. He ambled around the clubhouse that day as he did on all the others, with a smile and a wave for anyone near him, with a quick stop at his locker in the midst of pregame work and routine. As the 2015 season winds down and free agency looms, Fister admits the bullpen is not where he wants to be, something to be overcome as he tries to put his career back on track.
“I don’t feel like right now in my career I’m forced to be a bullpen member for the rest of my career. I still think I have a starting role somewhere, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I still have that capability,” Fister said. “That’s still in my heart that I can go out there and get guys out. But I know now I can adjust, I can be a member of the bullpen and be ready to pitch on a day-to-day basis.”
Fister says he’s found the stuff and feel that abandoned him early this season and did not return until recently. He says the strained right flexor — forearm soreness — is no longer a problem, so that helps. His numbers prove the point: He has not allowed an earned run in his last 10 1/3 innings, and scattered six hits over that span. He allowed eight earned runs in his first 10 1/3 innings in August.
“I feel really good,” Fister said.
Free agency looms for the 31-year-old, who may or may not receive a qualifying offer from the Nationals after this season’s troubles — though they did discuss an extension in the past. Though not extending a qualifying offer means the Nationals do not get a draft pick should Fister sign elsewhere, though they may decide that offering him the expected $15 million-plus such an offer would require them to pay him next season may pose too much of a risk. No player has ever accepted a qualifying offer.
Given how this season went, how it fostered so many doubts about his health and ability to be the same effective starter, regrets about a long-term deal not signed might haunt him.
“No,” said Fister, asked if they do. “Where I am right now, that’s definitely where I need to be. This was definitely a learning experience for me that will last forever. Whether it’s in this game or when I retire or with my family, whatever it is, there’s a lot of lessons that I’ve learned that I can apply to other points in my life.”
Fister had not pitched in the bullpen for any significant stretch since he was in the Mariners minor league system in 2009. Reliant on routine, a guy more than one teammate has described as “the ultimate professional,” moving the bullpen forced Fister out of the comfort of a starter’s five-day plan. When he started, he could spend an hour or so working with trainers and strength coaches getting loose before each start. In the bullpen, he has “about 30 seconds.”
“That kind of thing,” Fister said. “Relearning how to do all this myself and in a short-term manner. Teaching my body to be flexible again. Trying to get back into the things that I do and have always done. I’m not a robot anymore. I don’t feel like I’m just in a routine every day. It’s more like, hey, I’ve just gotta go out there ready to play every day.”
Fister earned his first major league save in Philadelphia two weeks ago. He kept the ball, though he did not assign much meaning to the achievement at the time. As evidenced when he agreed to give his old number, 58, to Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline, Fister does what is asked with an eye on those around him. His well-respected professionalism should help him in free agency, something he says he still hasn’t thought about beyond the fact that wherever he signs, he hopes to start again.
“I’d like to think (there will be an opportunity),” Fister said. “I try to take the standpoint of this is the uniform, this is my job at hand. But at some point I hope to have the opportunity to start again and I do think I have the ability to continue in that role. So when that market hits, when the time comes, I think the opportunity will be there.”