VIERA, Fla. — Doug Fister's next start will come not in the Nationals' Grapefruit League finale but in a minor-league game Thursday where club officials can better control his pitch count.
Fister could have started against the Mets in Port St. Lucie in the Nationals' final Florida exhibition game before Opening Day, but the team prefers to keep the right-hander in the more-controlled environment of the minor-league complex adjacent to Space Coast Stadium.
"Just to make sure that he's good," manager Matt Williams said. "At this point, we want to make sure we can get him clean innings to build him. We can just control it a little bit more. And that's fine. He's a pro. He knows what he's doing. That's the only reason behind it."
Jordan Zimmermann will start Thursday's game against the Mets, his final tune-up before his regular-season debut April 3 at Citi Field.
Fister threw 47 pitches Saturday against the Marlins after missing three weeks with elbow inflammation. He's still slated to throw 60-to-65 pitches Thursday, moving him one step closer to opening the regular season on time, though it's not yet a certainty that will happen.
If all goes well Thursday, Fister would remain in Florida after the rest of the club heads north and start in another minor-league game April 1, building up his pitch count to about 80. That would set him up to make his Nationals debut April 6 against the Braves in Washington.
Members of the big-league coaching and training staff won't be able to watch him pitch in person over the next week, but they aren't worried about evaluating him anymore. They simply want him to build up his arm strength and stamina after missing much of spring training.
"No, I don't feel like I need to watch him pitch," Williams said. "He's truthful with us. He's been around the block a time or two. He knows what he's doing."
Though they expect Fister to be ready to pitch in that April 6 game — the first time the club needs a fifth starter during the season — the Nationals don't want to make that declaration before they know he's fully ready. That, in turn, could delay the decision to name the final member of their rotation, because it's possible (though unlikely) they'll need both Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan to start during the season's first week.
If the Nationals decided Fister needed more time to prepare, they could place him on the disabled list, retroactive to March 26. (MLB does not allow season-opening DL moves to be backdated more than five days). Under that scenario, Fister wouldn't be eligible to return until April 10.