VIERA, Fla. — Nationals starting pitcher Doug Fister grew up around firefighters and police officers in his hometown of Merced, Calif.
His father, Larry, worked both jobs, starting as a beat cop and then as a member of the city's SWAT team, before switching to fighting fires. An uncle was a police officer and rose to detective before retiring.
Growing up in that environment in Merced, a town about two hours southeast of San Francisco in the San Joaquin Valley, Fister quickly figured out what it meant to be part of a group that relied on you. It was from those men that he learned how to build things. Fister worked construction in the offseason while making his way through the minor leagues, and this offseason, he even remodeled his own bathroom.
Those life lessons easily translated into sports, where he was a basketball and baseball star as well as an avid runner. Fister would accompany his dad to shooting practice, a hobby he maintains. He would sometimes accompany his uncle on ride-alongs, too.
After seeing what they went through on a daily basis at their jobs, with danger lurking around every corner, shaking off a line drive to the head — as he did in Game 2 of the World Series in 2012 while pitching for the Detroit Tigers — or keeping an even-keeled approach in a sport that can drive you crazy doesn't seem all that difficult to Fister.
"The building is on fire. Everybody is running out," Fister said. "Well, they're running in. They're true heroes."
Fister's addition via trade this offseason was a luxury for Washington at a position where depth simply means a team thinks it has enough pitching to last the season.
But the Nationals may have to wait a bit to see him in action. An elbow scare limited his innings during spring training, and he left a start in a minor-league game on Thursday with a lat strain. He may have to start the season on the DL. When he come back, he will give the Nats an advantage no other NL East team possesses: Four quality starting pitchers.
Washington only had to look at the Atlanta Braves, its rival and the defending division champ, to see what can happen in a bad week. That club lost ace Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to torn elbow ligaments and Tommy John surgery during spring training.
Even last season, the Nats returned to reality after a dream 2012. Ace Stephen Strasburg pitched through bone chips in his elbow. There's no guarantee Jordan Zimmermann or Gio Gonzalez make it through the entire year intact.
The offseason trade of utility man Steve Lombardozzi, pitching prospect Robbie Ray and reliever Ian Kroll for Fister should pay immediate dividends for Washington even if Ray, 22, becomes a legitimate starter in a few years.
"That's the good thing about this team is the core group of guys is still relatively young, and we should be together for at least another two years, and if things go well, you would hope longer than that," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "But to add a guy like Fister, and even a guy like [reserve outfielder Nate] McLouth, the depth on this team is probably the best I've ever seen."
Washington will be adding a steady presence to an interesting group — the intense Strasburg, the stoic Zimmermann and Gonzalez, the group's class clown. Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark are fighting for the final starting spot.
"I've always tried to kind of lay low and just try to put my nose to the grindstone and work," Fister said. "From Day 1, my father's always instilled in me not to speak about it, just go out there and work hard and let your actions show what you're all about. That's my mentality and the mentality that I try to take out to the ballpark every day."
Don't let that low-key personality mask Fister's competitiveness, though. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo recalled with pride Fister taking a line drive off his head in that World Series game, but shaking it off to retire 13 of the next 14 batters he faced. It's part of why the Nationals made the trade in the first place.
It also doesn't hurt that Fister, 30, is under team control for two more seasons and, at least for this year, costs just $7.2 million, a bargain given the prices teams must pay on the open market for starting pitchers.
Fister's 13.3 WAR (wins above replacement) over the last three seasons ranks ninth in the majors over that stretch, according to FanGraphs.com.
He doesn't allow many home runs and has impeccable control while providing innings, twice topping 200 in the last three seasons. And at 6-foot-8, he's able to get his pitches on top of batters quicker despite lacking the velocity of his fellow starters.
"[Fister] doesn't light up the radar gun, by any stretch of the imagination, as compared to a lot of guys in baseball these days," Washington manager Matt Williams said. "But he's that guy that you walk up there and go, 'Man, I'm 0-for-4, how did that happen?' And you just keep beating balls into the ground."
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