MESA, Ariz. -- A’s pitchers threw live batting practice on Tuesday morning, the first time they faced hitters this spring. It was clear right away that Mike Fiers was locked in.
That’s a bit unusual for the veteran starter, who takes time to build up toward regular-season form. Fiers normally is near ground zero at this point in the calendar.
Not so this year, and that’s no accident.
“It feels like I’m ahead of schedule,” Fiers said in a Tuesday afternoon conversation with NBC Sports California. “That’s a good feeling, especially for me. I try to time it up so that I’m ready at the end of March. Now I feel like, after pitching two innings (of live BP), getting up and sitting down again, my arm was healthy. That’s important. So is being locked in.
"I felt like, if I was facing another team, I would be pretty much ready to go. Now it’s about building stamina.”
Fiers cranked it up a bit earlier than usual to make up for what he considered a sloppy start to last season.
And, yeah. That’s the reason. This isn’t a direct response to the intense scrutiny Fiers has faced from misguided factions of the baseball industry and loyal-to-a-fault fans after blowing the whistle on Houston’s sign-stealing scandal. He has taken criticism since speaking on the record about the Astros' illegal activities, so much that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred vowed Tuesday to protect Fiers when he enters hostile environments.
Fiers isn’t out to fight flak with strong starts.
Getting ready earlier was a baseball decision. And, yes, this is a baseball story. Fiers only has been referenced lately in regard to the Astros and sign stealing, but let's not forget the man has a job to do. It doesn’t entail answering Astros questions every second of every day. He’s charged with winning games and leading an excellent starting rotation. He takes great pride in that.
Fiers will be integral to the A’s success this season, and he feels an obligation to start the season stronger than he did in 2019.
“I felt like that first month of last year was rough for me,” Fiers said. “I would be really good and then really bad. I wasn’t consistent. I don’t think I was 100 percent, and that’s on me.”
Fiers made up for it down the stretch, logging career-highs with 15 wins over 184.2 innings. His ERA stayed under 4.00 for a second straight season, leading an A’s rotation that rarely was at full strength.
The 34-year-old saw room for April improvement and wanted to enter early games that count in top form.
“There’s a timing aspect where you don’t want to start too soon but you don’t want to start so late that you’re not ready,” the right-hander said. “Last year I think I wasn’t ready physically and it took a bit longer to find my stride. Those games in April count. Not being ready cost me and this team.”
Fiers pointed to a poor 2019 Opening Day start in Japan as a major mistake. He went just three innings in an odd outing overseas during a two-game international series with the Seattle Mariners before returning to the Cactus League.
“When you feel like you’re being the eight ball, it’s tough,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “With the circumstance we had last year with Japan, playing two games and then returning to spring training mode, maybe you can feel a little rushed.”
Fiers responded well once the regular season began in earnest, without allowing a run over two straight starts. Then came a string of three outings with six earned runs allowed. The A’s lost four of his seven April starts, a sum that proved unacceptable.
“I wanted to start a bit earlier, so I was more ready to pitch in a big league game,” Fiers said. “I felt like that first month of last year was rough for me. I would be really good and then really bad. I wasn’t consistent. I don’t think I was 100 percent, and that’s on me.”
Fiers believes it is 100 percent on him to lead a talented, young rotation through what should be prosperous times.
“It puts pressure on me,” Fiers said. “I want to lead this pitching staff the right way and lead by example. We have a lot of guys here with electric stuff and I want to keep up. I have to go out there and battle, throw strikes and get guys out and go deep into games. Everybody has great stuff, even well above me. It’s about going out and competing and carrying the load.
"They still look to me and rely on me to lead the way. That’s a responsibility I welcome.”