Doug Fister was the Nationals' most consistent pitcher for much of last season, but in 2015 he just hasn't been the same.
The right-hander struggled once again in Monday night's 6-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks with five earned runs allowed on eight hits, including three home runs. The three homers were the most he's given up since his forgettable debut with the team last May, and they tied a career-high.
Fister has now matched his earned runs total from all of last season at 44. Last year he gave up that many in 164 innings, this season he sits at just 86.
Fister has allowed four earned runs or more in eight of his last 13 starts. He did that just four times in 25 outings in 2014.
Why Fister is pitching so poorly is not an easy question to answer. After he struggled through April and May he went on the disabled list with a right forearm strain. But since his return he now holds a 4.86 ERA (25 ER in 46.1 IP) in eight starts.
Health is not the issue, the Nationals insist, so what is?
"I’m going after them. I’m attacking with my best stuff," Fister explained. "It doesn’t have the deception. It doesn’t have the sink on it. It’s a lot flatter and straighter. These guys are good hitters. I have to respect that. I have to make a quality pitch and if not they are going to make me pay for it."
"He feels fine. He threw 110-plus tonight and didn't have any issues," Matt Williams said.
Fister is certainly frustrated with the results and keeps circling back to his mechanics when searching for a solution.
"For me the obvious answer is going out there and being able to repeat my delivery and repeat the quality of pitch. Early on, again, I was able to make those pitches count down in the zone, in off the plate. And doing that toward the end of the game, too. Now it’s just a matter of being more consistent," he said.
Williams hopes Fister can improve on keeping his pitches down in the zone.
"For him, it's about down angle, the ball moving down. When the ball is up, he doesn't have a chance to do that. It moves laterally, especially to the left-handers who can stay on the baseball and hit it to the middle of the diamond. If it's sinking, then you find what you found in the first couple of innings where it's rolling over, grounders, it's early in the count outs and he's in command. But when he gets up, it's just a lot easier for a hitter to hit," he said.
Monday's loss just happened to put the Nationals in second place in the NL East for the first time since June 19. Fister's poor outing also just happened to come on the night of Stephen Strasburg's second minor league rehab game, a convincing performance of 11 strikeouts and no walks with Triple-A Syracuse.
When Strasburg returns to the rotation, possibly this weekend, the Nationals will have a decision to make. The odd-man out is likely to be rookie Joe Ross, who was called up to fill in for Strasburg. But given Fister's struggles and the timing of his turn in the rotation, could they do something unexpected?
Fister was indispensable for the Nats in 2014 and their rotation would be much stronger with an effective version of him. But the pennant race is starting to heat up and they need to get him going sooner than later.