Patrick Reddington: Finally, it's time for Fister's debut

Gio Gonzalez said this winter that he was a "big, big fan of Doug Fister." The acquisition of the 6-foot-8 right-hander, according to Gonzalez, was like "knowing that you just got the brand-new car you wanted for Christmas."

"For me," Gonzalez said, "when you've got someone with that kind of presence, he's going to set the tone in the fourth spot, fifth spot, first spot, second spot. It doesn't matter where he is in that rotation. He's just going to be to us an ace."

Ross Detwiler, who ended up in the Nats bullpen, was expected to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister when he talked to reporters this winter about the rotation the Nationals put together for the 2014 campaign.

"The first four, the top four," Detwiler said, "we can go up against any rotation, anywhere."

"It brings a veteran arm who's got postseason experience and knows how to throw 200-plus innings every year and put up some great numbers," Strasburg said. "So I'm excited to have him as part of the rotation and I think he's going to be a great addition and excited to just learn from him."

In his fifth major league season in 2013, Fister was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 44 walks (1.90 walks/nine innings) and 159 Ks (6.86 strikeouts/nine innings) in 33 games, 32 starts and 208 2/3 innings, over which he was worth +4.6 fWAR. In 121 starts in his career, Fister has a 3.53 ERA, a 3.44 FIP, 1.81 BB/9 and 6.28 K/9 in 818 2/3 innings.

Fister posted the fourth-highest ground ball percentage in the majors in 2013, and as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo explained it, he thought the right-hander would only improve with the Nationals defense behind him.

"He's a 54% ground ball pitcher," Rizzo said in an interview on 106.7 the Fan in December, "and a guy who, like I said, he works all four quadrants of the strike zone, can get some weak contact, balls on the ground and allows his defense to help him out."

After just one start in Grapefruit League action this spring, however, Fister was diagnosed with inflammation in his right elbow.

"After his start he started feeling a little bit of discomfort," Nats skipper Matt Williams told reporters in early March, so the team ordered an MRI which revealed inflammation, but no structural damage. "A little tight in there," Williams said. "That's why we got the MRI, just to take a look and reports are good, but we're just going to err on the side of caution and make sure he's good."

Fister eventually returned to the mound to make a second start for the Nationals in Florida, but as he was building up arm strength and getting innings in during a minor league game, he suffered another setback.

He worked through the inflammation in his elbow, but a minor right lat strain led to a stint on the disabled list.

"He's going to be shut down from throwing for about five days, see where he's at and then start the process of getting him back," Williams explained. "That's the perfect plan, so we'll see how it goes over the next few and then get him going back on his program and get built back up a little bit."

The first-year manager didn't, however, think the strain was tied in any way to the previous elbow issue.

"I don't think it had anything to do with the elbow," Williams said in late March. "The elbow has been fine thus far, since he first had the inflammation. So it's just one of those things."

Fister was sidelined long enough that he was forced to restart the process of building up arm strength, throwing on flat ground, progressing to bullpens and eventually two minor league rehab starts. After his second outing in the Nats' system with the Harrisburg Senators, the right-hander was declared ready to return to the majors.

Tonight in Oakland, the Nationals will finally have their big winter acquisition on the mound in a major league game, a prospect that excites Williams.

"It's good for him and it's good for us," he told MASN's Dan Kolko last weekend. "He was certainly part of the plan going in and a really good pitcher. So, I don't know. We have to caution ourselves about expecting too much first time out, pitch count-wise, inning-wise, all of that, but his health is most important and so far he's good in the rehab, and we look for him to go out there and be competitive and pitch for us and we'll see where he gets to, but we're glad to have him back."

Fister will be making his first start for a National League team on Friday night, but he'll be facing a familiar opponent.

In his five major league seasons, he's faced the A's 12 times, going 5-5 with a 3.17 ERA, 15 walks (1.90 BB/9) and 46 Ks (5.83 K/9) in 71 innings, over which Athletics hitters have combined for .280/.324/.369 line.

He has a 2.41 ERA in 33 2/3 IP in the O.Co Coliseum where the Nationals and A's start a three-game set tonight. In six career outings in Oakland, he's held hitters to a .250/.317/.348 line.

Fister makes his debut with the Nationals tonight. Finally.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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