The plan this afternoon was to get Doug Fister up to three innings and around 45 pitches in his first Grapefruit League start since March 2nd.
After that initial outing with the Washington Nationals, the 30-year-old right-hander, acquired this winter in a 3-for-1 deal with the Detroit Tigers, felt tightness in his right elbow and was shut down for a few days.
An MRI revealed only inflammation, however, so after resting and treating the elbow, Fister started throwing again on flat ground, in bullpen sessions and in live action against minor leaguers as he built back up towards today's start against the Miami Marlins.
Before the game this afternoon in Viera, Florida's Space Coast Stadium, Nats' skipper Matt Williams told reporters that the big concern today was just making sure Fister's got his work in and felt good afterwards.
"Just how he feels," Williams said when asked this morning what he would be watching for from the 6'8'' starter.
"Making sure he gets to his pitch count. That's about it. I want him to be healthy and I want him to feel good. Results are not important right now for him. Just that he makes it to that pitch count and feels good going into tomorrow."
The Nationals took things slowly with Fister after the initial issues, trying to make sure the right-hander was healthy, not just for the start of the season, but the long haul.
"With all that's happened this spring with all these starting pitchers, it's scary for any club, certainly," Williams admitted, referring to all the pitchers who have been injured already this year. "But the MRI results were a relief, initially, and the fact that he's gone through a pretty heavy schedule, outside of games, he's gone through a pretty heavy schedule of throwing and feels good out of that, that's all positive signs."
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As for what signs he needed to see to feel good about today's outing, Williams reiterated that he just wanted Fister to get through the start and continue progressing.
"I would be comfortable if he feels okay," Williams explained. "Again, we have to get him to a point where he feels good and where he can stretch it out and there are no issues. But again, when that work load increases, there's more risk, certainly. Again, with all the results that we've received, and the way he's gone about it, his strength and all of that stuff, it's all positive. But we certainly have to see as he progresses in his pitch counts and heavier load, how he reacts. If he reacts well, then he's been down this road. He's a big league pitcher."
"I expect him to be just fine," Williams said. "I think his strength will be there and barring some kind of set back he'll progress to his next start and be fine."
Fister ended up going a little longer than expected this afternoon, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless against the Marlins in which he gave up two hits while striking out four and inducing four ground ball outs.
He threw 47 pitches total and told reporters afterwards that there were no issues with his elbow.
"It's knocking a little bit of rust off," the 6'8'' starter said of his first start in 20 days. "But everything felt very good. It's relieving to get out there and feel good, so all the work we've been putting in, the trainers and pitching coaches and everybody, it's paying off and we're on the right track."
Fister was at 39 pitches overall after three efficient innings, so he and Williams discussed it and decided he would go back out for more to get him up to the pitch total they were aiming for this afternoon.
"We had a little discussion that if it was a quick inning we could possibly send me back out and even if it was one hitter or two hitters, whatever it came to be," Fister said. "We had a set number that we were going to stick with and that's kind of what we did."
"We wanted to get him to 45, so he was at 39 after three, so we decided to let him go back out," Williams said, and the fact that he looked strong made it an easier decision. "He felt good, so there were no issues there."
Fister said his control was there today as he finally faced major leaguers again.
"Command is coming back," he said. "Again, a little rusty, but still working on those kind of things. I'm pleased with where I'm at but there's still a long way to go before the season starts. I've got a lot of work and a little bit of time."
Next time out he's expected to go to four or five innings and around 60 pitches as he progresses.
"Right now it's just about feeling right and getting the arm strength back," Fister told reporters.
"I would say that he's right on schedule," Williams said. "Talked to him immediately after the game, he said he felt good. No issues. So next time out we'll try to get him to 60 [pitches], maybe just a tick above. I thought it was good. Threw some breaking balls behind in the count and 3-2, shows me he's got confidence in it right now even though it's been on a limited basis."
Fister said he wasn't looking too far into the future and was just concentrating on each step in the progression.
"It's something I'm trying to take step-by-step," he explained.
"It's one of those things that you never know what's going to go wrong. You can always have problems or you can always just fly right through. So it's a matter of if you take care of your business and go about things the right way, hopefully everything stays right where it's supposed to be."
"We're going to wait to see how the next one goes," Williams said when asked about having the right-hander ready for the start of the season. "Again, we have to just take it start-by-start at this point. Because the more load he gets on it, we have to make sure that we monitor it. So nothing yet. There's no thought about it yet other than we'll get him out there again and get him 60, maybe 65 [pitches] and see where he's at."
"I'm blessed to be out here and still be doing it," Fister said of the process of working his way back when so many pitchers have been knocked out by injuries already this spring. "So it's one of those things that I've just got to take it in stride and keep a positive attitude and know I'll be back."