PHILADELPHIA — When it happened over the weekend against the Giants, it felt like one blip on an otherwise stellar summer of pitching dominance. When it happened again Wednesday night against the Phillies, you started to wonder whether this has quickly become more than a mere blip.
Doug Fister has been the Nationals’ workhorse this season, their stopper, the guy they want to take the ball when they have to win a game. How surprising, then, have his back-to-back losses — including Wednesday’s 8-4 defeat at Citizens Bank Park — been within the context of his entire year?
“You really can’t say too much,” center fielder Denard Span said. “He’s been unbelievable. Even tonight, he still went six innings and gave us an opportunity to win. That’s all you can ask for. He’s been stellar all season. … When he has a game like this, it almost seems like he didn’t pitch good. But he still pitched great tonight.”
Fister, who allowed five runs (four earned) on a season-high 10 hits in only 5 2/3 innings, and twice gave up 2-run leads, wasn’t quite as forgiving of himself.
“I let the guys down tonight with some bad pitches,” the right-hander said. “That’s what it comes down to. I didn’t do my job. A starting pitcher is supposed to set the tone and be the example. From first pitch, I didn’t do that. I’ve got to be better from the start.”
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Fister has excelled at his job the majority of the season, thrusting himself into the conversation for Cy Young Award also-ran votes behind presumptive winner Clayton Kershaw and establishing himself as the No. 1 arm in the Nationals’ star-studded rotation. But something has been different his last two times out. Specifically, he has been giving up home runs.
After a 10-start span in which he served up a total of only three homers, Fister has now been taken deep four times in two games. Handed a 2-0 lead before he ever took the mound Wednesday night, he quickly left a 1-0 sinker up in the zone to Jimmy Rollins and watched the Phillies shortstop send a rainbow just over the right-field fence.
Fister’s bigger mistake came in the bottom of the sixth, after the Nationals had once again opened up a 2-run lead. Already showing some signs of fading, with Domonic Brown’s RBI double bringing the Phillies to within a run, Fister got ahead of pinch-hitter Grady Sizemore 0-2 and then decided to try something he doesn’t normally do.
“I got away from my plan,” he said. “I tried to get a little tricky with a couple curveballs, and I hung the second one. He’s a great hitter, and he’s done it for a while and you pay for it.”
Indeed, Sizemore tagged Fister’s hanging breaking ball to deep right field, giving the Phillies a 5-4 lead and leaving the Nationals shell-shocked.
Considering how out of the ordinary these last two starts have been, it’s human nature to wonder what, if anything, has changed. It’s also human nature to consider the minor procedure Fister had done last week to remove skin cancer that had developed on the left side of his neck, and wonder whether it has had any effect on his pitching performance.
Fister insisted after his last start it did not, and manager Matt Williams echoed that sentiment Wednesday night.
“I wouldn’t think so, no,” Williams said. “It was an outpatient type of thing. I don’t think there’s any effect there at all. He missed no time, didn’t miss any work. In fact, he worked out that day before he went and had the procedure. I don’t think there’s anything to it.”
If anything, Fister understands the key to overcoming this blip is to get back to what he has done so well most of the season: Keep his pitches down in the strike zone.
“It’s just a matter of – I’m redundant in saying it – getting the ball down,” he said. “That’s the key to any sort of success. It’s going to be something I’m going to have to really bear down on and get some work in.”
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