- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- Detroit pitcher Doug Fister isn't much for scouting reports. He prefers to work to his strengths rather than focus on exploiting hitters' weaknesses. Unlike many starters, Fister chooses to mingle with teammates in the clubhouse rather than retreat into an emotional bunker in the name of pregame preparation. And if you listen to his dry, measured responses in interviews, you might wonder if he actually has a pulse.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. A slow heart rate could come in handy Thursday night, when Fister is standing on the Yankee Stadium mound with Derek Jeter in the box, Curtis Granderson on deck and Robinson Cano in the hole.
When the Phillies and Cardinals meet to decide their National League Division Series on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, Roy Halladay will take on Chris Carpenter in a matchup of former Toronto teammates, Cy Young award recipients and perennial All-Star candidates. Does it get any better than that?
An alternate reality is about to unfold in the Bronx, where Yankees rookie Ivan Nova takes on Fister, a former Fresno State Bulldog whose numbers coming up through the Seattle system were so pedestrian he failed to earn a mention in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook. Does it get any more improbable?
Nova, 24, displayed an impressive sense of calm and composure while winning 16 regular-season games for New York. He stepped in for CC Sabathia in the rain-suspended Game 1 in this series, and deftly handled the Detroit hitters for three turns through the batting order in 6 1/3 innings of work.
Nova will be opposed by Fister, 27, who was rescued from a summer of anonymity and 2-1 losses when Tigers general manager David Dombrowski acquired him from Seattle in a six-player trade on July 30. The deal was one of three moves by Dombrowski that filled voids on the roster and helped Detroit go 38-16 in August and September and pull away in the American League Central.
The deals may or may not win Dombrowski an Executive of the Year award, but they substantiate his reputation as a GM who's decisive and doesn't mess around when his team has a need. Dombrowski has a supportive owner in Mike Ilitch and a trusted core of baseball advisers, led by assistant GM Al Avila and vice president of player personnel Scott Reid, and the GM took advantage of all the resources at his disposal this summer.
"He knows what he's trying to do, and there's no real gamesmanship,'' Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "He'll tell you what works and what doesn't work, and he'll tell you what he's trying to do and what he won't do. He knows the game as well as anybody, and he has a good, strong, loyal group of people, and they stay together. They're smart enough to stick with a plan and not deviate from it.''
As the Tigers' midseason activity showed, the ability to identify concerns and address them with below-the-radar moves can make a huge difference for a team with pennant aspirations.
With third baseman Brandon Inge coming off mononucleosis and hitting .177 a week after the All-Star break, Dombrowski swung a trade with Kansas City to bring in Wilson Betemit, who hit .292 in 40 games with Detroit and helped solidify the third-base position. In mid-August, Dombrowski placed a waiver claim on Twins outfielder Delmon Young and acquired him in a deal for minor league pitchers Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros.
Young, 26, is generally perceived as a disappointment because of his checkered career path since Tampa Bay selected him first overall in the 2003 draft. He's a defensive liability and an OBP sinkhole, and his progress has stalled at times because of a wide assortment of injuries. But he's still only 26 years old, and he has a career .307 batting average with an .822 OPS against left-handed pitching.
The Tigers aren't complaining. Young helped Detroit compensate for the loss of outfielder Brennan Boesch to a season-ending thumb injury, and his solo homer off Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano was the difference-maker in the Tigers' 5-4 win in Game 3 of this series Monday. Young is benefiting from batting third in the order, where he is assured of getting lots of fastballs. Opposing pitchers and managers have a natural aversion to putting runners on base in front of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the 4-5 spots in the lineup.
"He's a functional guy in left field who can hit a home run every once in a while and kills lefties,'' an American League scout said of Young. "That's pretty good.''
In hindsight, Dombrowski's most inspired move came on July 30, when he acquired Fister from Seattle to fortify the starting rotation. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello were inconsistent behind Justin Verlander in the Nos. 2-3 spots, and it had become readily apparent early this season that Brad Penny's best days were behind him. The fifth spot in the rotation was even more problematic; manager Jim Leyland had used Phil Coke, Charlie Furbush, Duane Below, Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver at the back end, and Detroit was 4-17 with its No. 5 starter on the mound.
The Fister trade received a lot less attention than Cleveland's big July acquisition of Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez, but was a lot more productive. Fister won seven straight decisions in August and September and finished fourth in the American League with a 2.83 ERA. By the end of the regular season, he had established career highs with 11 wins, 216 1/3 innings pitched and 146 strikeouts.
Fister's fastball generally tops out around 90 mph, but he compensates for so-so velocity with impeccable control. Fister tied with Dan Haren for 11th place among major league starters by throwing first-pitch strikes 64.6 percent of the time. He had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.95-to-1) than Sabathia, Jered Weaver, James Shields and David Price.
"The gun doesn't tell the story on him,'' the scout said. "He's a movement guy with good location, and velocity doesn't matter that much. He's so tall [6-foot-8] and he's straight over the top, so he gets great 'down' plane. When he's down in the zone, it's like hitting a bowling ball.''
Fister's box score line was unsightly in Detroit's 9-3 loss to Nova and the Yankees in Game 1 of this series, but Leyland contends that he made only one bad pitch -- a hanging 0-2 changeup that Brett Gardner hit for a two-run single. Things didn't get ugly until Al Alburquerque came out of the bullpen and gave up a grand slam to Robinson Cano.
History shows that the Yankees have gone the distance in the ALDS four times since their run of world championships in 1996, and opposing starters have experienced mixed results. Cleveland's Jaret Wright beat New York in Game 5 in 1997 at Jacobs Field. In 2000, the Yankees bombed Oakland's Gil Heredia for six first-inning runs on the way to a 7-5 victory. A year later the Yankees beat Oakland's Mark Mulder in the deciding fifth game. And in 2005, the Angels' Bartolo Colon came out after an inning because of an inflamed shoulder and Ervin Santana responded with 5 1/3 innings of inspired relief to send New York home.
If Fister is uptight about facing the vaunted Yankees on their home turf in a clincher, he certainly doesn't show it. His Detroit teammates kid him about his lack of a pregame routine.
"I go to the ballpark at a different time every day,'' Fister said Wednesday. "I don't have to go in and eat my bowl of Cheerios. I don't have to go in and run. It's just kind of a flow as I get a feel for the day. If I feel like I need to sit down and listen to music and relax a little bit, that's what I do. If I need to go in and jump around in the weight room with a couple of guys and goof around, that's another thing.''
If Fister can't beat the Yankees and save the Tigers' season, it will be because he wasn't good enough -- not because he got scared. Leyland, his teammates and the entire Detroit organization can ultimately derive a lot of hope from that.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
Doug Fister and Delmon Young weren't part of the Tigers' roster when the season began, but both will play key roles in Game 5 versus the Yankees and help decide whether Detroit's year continues.