With the Twins and Royals in town this week, the Tigers have a solid opportunity to head into the break with a winning record. But as Minnesota showed Tuesday -- really, as Minnesota showed in May -- it's not automatic.
Now, the Tigers will need to win four of their next six to head into the All-Star break at .500. Five out of six will send them to the break with a winning record and a wave of momentum.
They'll have to play very good baseball to get there. For three innings or so Monday, they did. Once the pitches rose on Fister, or once the shadows fell across the entire infield, the bottom dropped out on his outing.
Which fits better is a difference of opinion on both sides.
"I really just didn't execute there in the fourth inning," Fister said. "I felt good the first three, and then the ball got up on me a little bit and they capitalized on it."
Fister (1-6) faced the minimum 10 batters through 3 1/3 innings. The only Twin to reach base safely was Ryan Doumit on a hit-by-pitch, but Brian Dozier's double-play grounder erased him. Before that, Fister struck out four of Minnesota's first five hitters, including the top three in order on called third strikes in the opening inning.
Once the top of the order came back around for the fourth, the results practically flipped. Leadoff man Denard Span worked the count full before lining out to third baseman Miguel Cabrera, then six of Minnesota's next seven batters singled.
None of them were hit particularly hard, but all of them found holes through the Tigers' infield, leading to four fourth-inning runs. Trevor Plouffe drove in two with a ground ball through the left side to put Minnesota on top for good.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and his players said they started seeing the ball better after the first few innings, once the sun was lower in the sky.
"I don't want to blame it on a backdrop, but it's tough to see here the first couple of innings," Doumit said. "The last couple of times we've played here, the first three innings, with the way everything's shining back there, [it's tough].
"That's not taking anything away from him. He had good stuff the first three innings, we just made adjustments."
Fister put more of the blame on himself.
"I'm sure that they made adjustments," he said, "but it's a lack of execution on my part. It's a big difference between just below the knee and just above the knee, and I left the ball up a little bit and they made me pay for it."
Fister's struggles in his previous start last Wednesday support his point. He went from retiring the top third of the Rangers' order in the opening inning to giving up two singles and a three-run homer in a four-run second. He retired six straight Rangers to get through the third before serving up two homers in the fourth.
Fister made adjustments between starts, he said, but they clearly didn't stick.
"I think it's just a matter of fine-tuning it, just focusing on getting on top of the ball and driving through it," he said, "instead of trying to get on the side of it and trying to make it do too much."
The Tigers buy what he's saying, but they also point out that he missed about a month and a half over two different stints on the disabled list. He hasn't had a rhythm to get consistent yet, they argue.
"To be honest with you, Doug's doing his best out there," catcher Alex Avila said. "It's something that you have to be patient with him about, because he came off the DL and just started pitching. This is like Spring Training for him. ... These last couple of starts, it's almost like his rehab starts."
Add in a walk and two more singles to begin the fifth inning, and Fister allowed nine of the last 11 Twins he faced to reach base safely. Yet none of the eight hits he allowed over four-plus innings went for extra bases, making him just the third Tigers pitcher to do that in such a short outing since 2000. Brad Penny did it last June 15, while Nate Cornejo did it on July 4, 2003.
All 13 hits for the Twins on the night, in fact, were singles. The only extra-base hit for either side was Cabrera's two-run double in a three-run fifth inning to chase Twins starter Liam Hendriks, who watched his 6-1 lead nearly unravel.
"We're only down two runs," Avila said. "That's a bloop and a blast right there."
That's where it stayed. Anthony Swarzak (2-4) tossed 2 2/3 innings to pace five scoreless innings of Twins relief, keeping the Tigers under .500 for at least another couple of days.
"It's just a number right now," Austin Jackson said. "I think we're really focusing on just going out there and putting up the effort. If we keep doing that, we'll be all right."