VIERA, Fla. — A minute before he took his place on the mound at Space Coast Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Doug Fister met Anthony Rendon on the grass behind the pitcher’s mound. Rendon, playing third base, was the last player with the ball after infielders threw it around the diamond, so he dropped it in Fister’s glove. Rendon slapped Fister on his hip in encouragement, and the towering right-hander stepped to the rubber in a game as a member of the Washington Nationals for the first time.
Eight innings later, nearly three hours after Fister’s spring training debut, the other pitcher the Nationals traded for in the offseason took the mound. Jerry Blevins, the lanky and crafty left-handed reliever, emerged from the bullpen in far right field and fired a scoreless ninth inning to secure a 10-3 Grapefruit League victory over the Miami Marlins. Neither was particularly spectacular — it was March 2, after all, and their appearances were brief — but they flashed glimpses of their standout skills.
“It’s good to get the first one, I wouldn’t say out of the way, but get my feet underneath me as a Nat,” Fister said. “I know everybody’s back there ready to play and they’ve got my back. So it’s a good feeling to have. I like the team that we have here.”
Fister, who is among the best in baseball at producing groundballs, cuts an imposing figure on the mound. His 6-foot-8 frame and over-the-top delivery allow him to create a sharp downward angle on his sinkers. In the first inning, 13 of his 18 pitches were strikes, and he induced a groundout from Matt Angle, struck out Donovan Solano and made Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a weak popup to Ian Desmond.
In the second inning, his last one, Fister walked the leadoff batter, erased it with a double play, then allowed a double, a single and a run. He was toying with his pitch selection, and his control was “a little erratic.”
“It’s a matter of fine-tuning the sinker,” he said. “. . . Just normally where I normally am, I feel like I’ve got a little better command. For the first day, I wasn’t unhappy about it. Just gives me something to build on and work through.”
Teammates are excited about Fister’s upcoming season, his first in the National League after being acquired from Detroit in December for infielder Steve Lombardozzi, reliever Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray. He has averaged 189 innings and a 3.48 ERA over the past four seasons. This year, the five-year major league veteran won’t have to face a designated hitter. With Fister, 30, the Nationals figure to have one of the best rotations in the sport.
“He had a good year last year,” said fellow starter Jordan Zimmermann, whose locker is adjacent to Fister’s. “He should have a good year this year. We don’t have a righty sinkerballer guy in the rotation, so that’s good. A different look for other teams. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
In the ninth inning, the 6-6 Blevins emerged from the bullpen in far right field. He struck out the first batter, right-handed Kyle Jensen, looking on three pitches. After working inside, Blevins’s final pitch of the at-bat was on the outside corner. “He can go on both sides of the plate with anything,” catcher Jeff Howell said.
Blevins’s fastball averaged 90.1 mph last season, but he succeeds with command and an array of pitches: a cutter, curveball and change-up. He is capable of pitching a full inning because he has a track record of getting both left and right-handed hitters out, the type of left-hander the Nationals lacked last season. After he walked the second batter of the inning Sunday, he forced a game-ending double play from a right-hander. His fastball induces grounders, and his other pitches keep batters off balance.
“We saw a little bit of it,” Manager Matt Williams said of Blevins, who was acquired from Oakland for minor league outfielder Billy Burns in December. “Go away, away, away, then pop a fastball in there on the corner. It doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he has command within the zone.”
Blevins, one of a handful of players the Nationals have acquired from the Athletics, has adjusted quickly to his new surroundings. The 30-year-old has found familiar faces such as starter Gio Gonzalez, a former teammate in Oakland, and reliever Craig Stammen, a former teammate at the University of Dayton.
“It’s been pretty easy,” Blevins said a few days ago. “The guys have been very welcoming. The coaches are great. It’s been a pretty easy transition.”
As part of their transition, Blevins and Fister are also building rapport with the Nationals’ catchers. Starting catcher Wilson Ramos has yet to crouch behind the plate for Blevins, but he has caught two of Fister’s live bullpen sessions. Ramos, who started Sunday, said he already feels comfortable with Fister.
“He’s really good,” Ramos said. “His sinker is great. His change-up is good, curveball, too. He throws from a high angle, and I think that’s more effective.”
Over the next month of spring training, both pitchers will iron their remaining kinks and build deeper roots within the Nationals. Both are excited for what may come this season with their new team, which already feels like home.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, but most important we’ve got great chemistry and guys are playing together,” Fister said. “So I look forward to the future here.”