Athletics

Mike Fiers already 'ahead of schedule' preparing for crucial A's season

Mike Fiers already 'ahead of schedule' preparing for crucial A's season

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.”

[RELATED: Why Melvin has sky-high expectations for A's this season]

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.”

A's legend Dave Stewart describes coronavirus scare, testing process

A's legend Dave Stewart describes coronavirus scare, testing process

Dave Stewart is down 15 pounds, and feeling “about eighty percent” healthy.

All of this part of an illness, which two weeks ago, the former pitcher-turned NBC Sports California A's analyst feared was coronavirus.

“I was very, very much afraid,” Stewart said, who also suffers from asthma.

The 63-year old’s symptoms began while on a baseball business trip in Monclova, Mexico. The return flight to California is when he knew something was wrong, and testing for COVID-19 was imminent.

“Went straight from the airport, to the testing place,” Stewart said. “They didn’t even give me two minutes, rushed me into the tent, put a mask on me. And started the testing.”

That testing, as you might well already know about, is invasive through the nasal cavities.

“Two swabs, up these big tunnels of mine,” Stewart said about the testing process. “They put those things up there, I felt like they were in my brain. One for the flu, the other for the virus.”

Stewart’s breathing and blood pressure were also observed, in addition to an X-ray of his chest region. 

Eight painstaking days later, he received good news: Everything was negative.

But that didn’t stop Stewart from self-quarantining the moment he got home. And for good reason: He has a 93-year old mother and 102-year old step-father.

“If I’m carrying it, and I don’t know it, then I’m responsible for two very elderly people,” Stewart said.

“The people that I could touch, and possibly give this to, and possibly endanger their lives.”

[RELATED: Why Astros serving bans despite hiatus stings for A's fans]

The 1989 World Series MVP is set to resume his role on "A’s Pre and Postgame Live" once baseball resumes. Stewart also was set to have his jersey retired with the A’s on May 23. But that is now inevitably better suited for a later date.

“This is certainly something I can live with, that’s for sure,” Stewart said.

Why Astros' bans ending in 2020 despite MLB hiatus stings for A's fans

Why Astros' bans ending in 2020 despite MLB hiatus stings for A's fans

We're currently in the midst of unprecedented times due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But sports have faced major setbacks, with postponements and cancellations affecting leagues worldwide. MLB has not played a regular-season game, and the date of Opening Day still is undetermined. And yet, the Houston Astros, who were scheduled to face the A’s this week, might get a small break due to the delay.

Former Houston manager AJ Hinch and ex-general manager Jeff Luhnow’s one-year suspensions would be served this year, whether an MLB season is played or not. 

ESPN’s Buster Olney reported Thursday, citing a source, that MLB will view both Hinch and Luhnow serving their discipline this year in 2020 because the suspensions were tied to the end of the upcoming postseason.

The league also announced the Astros would lose their first and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Draft as part of the disciplinary actions, and they also were fined $5 million. 

Astros owner Jim Crane then took an additional step and fired the two. 

With the A’s originally set to face the reigning AL champions this week in Oakland, it would have created many storylines centered around Mike Fiers.

Fiers was the whistleblower who exposed the Astros of their cheating ways during their 2017 World Series run. This subjected him to much scrutiny from fans, but Fiers also was dubbed a hero to those around the game.

For now, the earliest the season could start is around mid-May. That’s in addition to agreement between the league and the MLB Players Association that states the season cannot begin until there are no bans on mass gatherings, no travel restrictions and medical experts have determined games will not post a risk to the health of teams and fans.

The Astros-A’s series could have been the series that set the tone for the rest of the season across the league

[RELATED: What Canha misses most about baseball during hiatus]

It appears that the tone is different now. Not because baseball hasn’t started yet, but Hinch and Luhnow would be getting a free pass in a way. None of us are playing baseball right now. 

That has Hinch and Luhnow waiting around, just like the rest of us.