Competitor that he is, Doug Fister never wants to admit he's not physically fit to pitch. But it was the realization and then acceptance of that fact five weeks ago that put Fister into the position he is today: Ready to rejoin the Nationals rotation, ready to be the contributor he expected to be all along.
"At the time, it was not allowing me to get my job done, and that's something we can't toy around with," the right-hander said. "We've gotta win games here, period. If that means me taking a step out, then that's what I had to do. That was an easy decision for us."
Forearm tightness prompted Fister to shut it down following a dreadful start May 14 in San Diego. He has resided on the disabled list ever since, but tonight he'll be activated and take the mound for the finale of the Nationals' 4-game, 2-city series with the Rays. And he's convinced he'll be better for it.
"Over the time being on the DL, I think it has improved and gotten a lot better," he said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing how it improves. There were a lot of mechanical issues that I've had, and it kind of got away from me. So these [five] weeks or however long it's been, it's almost like a spring training for me, trying to get back on track. As everything goes along, it's gonna progress even better. I'm looking forward to seeing how that goes."
Though he didn't fully reveal his forearm discomfort until after that 7-run-in-2-inning night at Petco Park last month, Fister admittedly didn't feel 100 percent for awhile. And his overall performance reflects that.
In seven starts to open the season, he posted a 4.31 ERA with a career-worst 1.412 WHIP and a walk rate (2.3 per nine innings) almost twice his mark from 2014.
The forearm injury was a contributing factor, but Fister also believes poor mechanics played a role in his struggles. After watching video of himself from earlier in his career, he realized he wasn't staying back enough before releasing the ball, instead out on his front foot too soon in the delivery process.
"I sat down and really looked at some video of previous years and see a comparison of where I've been, where I used to be, and really get that feeling back both with visualization and in the bullpen," he said.
Fister felt like he had the problem solved Friday night during his rehab start for Class AA Harrisburg, when he tossed six scoreless innings, striking out four without walking a batter. That was the final step in a long rehab process that included plenty of work even when he didn't have a baseball in his right hand.
"In the minor leagues, we did a lot of mental skills work," he said. "That's something ... we say this game is 80 percent mental, and how much work we do mentally? It's something I'm really trying to focus on. Visualization is a big part, a big thing for us, because we can only throw so many pitches in a week and a time span between starts, so try to get that done. So getting back to my roots is something that's definitely helped. And I look forward to seing how it translates into a game."