KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Even on a beautifully breezy March afternoon, when the fact that Washington won 4-2 didn’t mean much to either side, the Nationals apparently felt no obligation to greet former teammate Doug Fister kindly. Though the newest Astros’ starter held his former teammates to one run in three innings, the Nationals beat him up, with three hard-hit balls right at him, all stopped from being base hits and turned into outs because they deflected off his lanky 6-8 frame.
“After being traded a few times to different teams, you kind of get used to facing old teammates,” Fister said. “But it’s always a challenge to face guys that know you, and know what you’re going to do.”
Among the Nationals who know Fister best is catcher Jose Lobaton, who singled home the first run against him in the second, then drove home another with a ground ball in the fourth. Uncharacteristically, Fister walked three in three innings — Trea Turner twice and free-swinging Wilmer Difo once. Difo scored on Lobaton’s single. Lobaton drove in Difo again on that ground ball.
“Like Loby, Loby’s at the plate and obviously knows me well,” Fister said. “I’ve got to execute, and when I don’t, he does what he did. I’ve got to tip my hat to him.”
A year after leading the Nationals in ERA, Fister endured an injury-riddled 2015 season after which the Nationals did not extend him a qualifying offer. His fastball velocity, never high to begin with, had dropped into the mid-80s, and elbow trouble raised questions about his long-term durability, though he is 32. Fister hit 90 miles per hour at times this spring, and seems to be back in-sync in a way he wasn’t last season.
“I feel great,” Fister said. “I’ve spent a lot of time this offseason, a lot of effort, working with physical therapists just trying to get me healthy. I feel great. Spent, again, a lot of time. I’m happy with where I’m at right now.”
Max Scherzer started against Fister, his second start of the spring. Using more curveballs, change-ups and cutters than he might normally — and therefore sacrificing some measure of command, because four-seam fastballs are more predictable — Scherzer allowed three hits and walked a batter in the first inning, alone. Scherzer was supposed to pitch three innings, or around 50 pitches, but only threw two frames after needing 37 pitches to finish the first.
“Obviously, it wasn’t as efficient as I would like. I would like to have gone three innings,” Scherzer said. “But the good thing is I actually got to pitch out of a jam. You get into a high pitch count situation, you have guys that are battling you, and you have to execute pitches in a bases-loaded situation. That’s stuff that gets you ready for the season.”
Once the Astros had already scored a run in that inning, Scherzer faced designated hitter A.J. Reed with the bases loaded. Scherzer threw him everything, then everything again, engaged in a 13-pitch battle. Eventually, Reed grounded to third and Jason Martinson got an out at the plate. Scherzer, endlessly competitive, said he did not hold back when challenged so.
“Even in spring training you’re competing,” Scherzer said. “There were times I was trying to bust him in, or throw that heater up and away and get it past him. He was able to just foul it off. He was fouling off all the pitches I was throwing…that was great to get to experience that in spring.”
Dusty Baker was so impressed with that at-bat that he pointed it out to his players as a reminder of what fouling off pitches can do to a front-line starter.
“I told the guys, if you can have a similar at-bat or two during the game, that’s how you cut down their pitch count,” Baker said. “Being a tough out.”
Infielder and Virginia native Scott Sizemore has been a tough out all spring, and continued his hot hitting with an RBI double. Sizemore is now hitting .556 with two doubles, two homers, and five runs batted in this spring. Tony Campana, the speedy outfielder who the Nationals signed to a minor league deal last season, made two spectacular catches in left field and tripled. Another non-roster invitee, outfielder Logan Schafer, drove him home with a single.
The Nationals moved to 6-1 in Grapefruit League play, and head to Lakeland to play the Tigers Wednesday.