PITTSBURGH — There are pitchers who will openly say they take the mound with a little extra emotion and motivation when their club is in the midst of a losing streak and desperately needs to put an end to it. Some guys relish the idea of being their team's stopper.
Doug Fister, though, doesn't buy into that idea. Not because he doesn't want to be the guy with the ball ending a losing streak. Because he wants to be the guy with the ball no matter the overall state of his team.
"Same thing as slumping," the right-hander said. "A slump's only as much as you think it is. That's something that mentally you have to beat. Today is a new day. You've got to have a short-term memory in this game. And today was a new day."
If he didn't convey the stopper mentality via his words on Sunday, Fister did with his performance. Knowing the Nationals were desperate after a four-game losing streak that left them under .500, the veteran hurler went right after the Pirates lineup and wound up authoring his third consecutive strong start in the Nats' 5-2 victory at PNC Park.
In short, Fister was exactly the guy the Nationals needed — and wanted — on the mound on this afternoon.
"He's great," said Adam LaRoche, who went 1-for-4 in his return from the disabled list. "We've got a few guys you want to have the ball in a must-win game. But he was phenomenal."
Fister appears well-suited for this role. He may not blow away opposing hitters, but he attacks the strike zone, gets quick outs, keeps his teammates on their feet and doesn't get rattled by anything.
To wit: After Ian Desmond misplayed a hard grounder in the fifth for his 13th error of the season, Fister didn't wilt. He immediately got pinch-hitter Jose Tabata to hit another grounder right at Desmond, who started an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play.
It's a mindset Fister first learned in college from Fresno State coach Mike Batesole: Treat every pitch with the same amount of importance. Don't worry about the last one. Don't look ahead to the next one.
"That was one of our biggest keys I had in college with Coach Bates," he said. "Make a one-pitch adjustment. Don't let it carry over to the second or third pitch. Make sure you take care of it right away."
Fister was humming along through five innings Sunday, buoyed by a 4-0 lead supplied by his Nationals teammates and looking like he could pitch deep into the afternoon. Things quickly began to deteriorate in the bottom of the sixth, though. Josh Harrison homered. Neil Walker singled. Andrew McCutchen grounded to third, but then Ike Davis singled to left, prompting manager Matt Williams to make a surprisingly quick visit to the mound to take the ball from his starter and hand it to Craig Stammen.
"The ball just started to get up [in the zone] a little bit," Williams said. "Could he have gone longer? Yeah, but we decided to get him out of there. And Stammen came in and made a really nice pitch."
Indeed he did. Stammen threw the customary eight warm-up tosses from the mound, then recorded two outs with only one pitch: A sinker to Starling Marte that turned into a 5-4-3, inning-ending double play.
"I've never done that," Stammen said. "But it was fun. I enjoyed it. One pitch, it's less stressful that way."
The rest of the afternoon was fairly routine, with the Pirates never drawing closer than three runs and closer Rafael Soriano cruising through a 1-2-3 ninth inning to prevent them from even sniffing the possibility of a comeback.
So the Nationals left town in a good mood at the end of an otherwise miserable weekend. They've still got an uphill battle, sitting at .500 with Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez all on the DL.
But they've got LaRoche back. They've gotten good pitching performances across the board, with Fister now establishing himself as a trusted member of the rotation. They've managed to remain positive despite plenty of reason for negativity.
For the first time in five days, smiles abounded and music blared in the Nationals' clubhouse after what certainly felt like a more-significant victory than most.
"Today was an important win," Stammen said. "We needed to break that losing streak, get a good vibe as we go home and not go with our tail between our legs."