Fister's first shutout tightens AL Central race

Fister's first shutout tightens AL Central race

Fister's first shutout tightens AL Central race
DETROIT -- Doug Fister had nary a threat to escape on his way to his first Major League shutout. He was so good, in fact, that his biggest escape might have been manager Jim Leyland's handshake of doom.

If you've seen enough Tigers games, you know the handshake. It's the greeting Leyland gives his starting pitcher on their way into the dugout when the skipper has decided they're done. When he shakes their hand, almost infallibly, somebody's coming in from the bullpen for the next inning.

Leyland gave Fister the handshake after eight innings and 106 pitches. After some pleading, Leyland gave him a chance at the ninth. Eleven pitches later, Fister gave him a seven-hitter and an easy 8-0 win over the Twins on Saturday afternoon at Comerica Park.

"Let's just say I made a decision that worked out right," Leyland said afterwards. "I'm not sure it was the right one."

The win -- coupled with the White Sox 4-2 loss to the Angels -- moved the Tigers within a half-game of first place in the American League Central.

On the day when Miguel Cabrera tied the Rangers' Josh Hamilton for the American League lead with his 42nd home run, Cabrera's increasingly better chance at the first batting Triple Crown in 45 years was the story. But while Leyland was juggling his rotation and hoping to rest up his bullpen for a day-night doubleheader on Sunday, Fister's performance had the bigger impact.

They had a pretty fresh 'pen coming off Friday's washout, and they had Rick Porcello available in relief with the rain wiping out his scheduled start. However, the Tigers have Max Scherzer starting Sunday afternoon coming off right shoulder weakness that ended his last start after two innings, and they have Drew Smyly making a spot start in the nightcap with no lofty expectations on how many innings he can cover.

As worried as Leyland was about pushing Fister's pitch count too far, his bullpen was still a concern. When Fister wrapped up the eighth, Leyland's concern over Fister momentarily won out.

"I felt like he could definitely get the shutout," Leyland said. "What I was worried about was his next start. I didn't want to get him to 120 pitches or something."

He finished off the eighth inning having retired 12 of his last 13 batters, but his pitch count reached 106. With all his injury issues this season, Fister had topped 110 pitches just twice all season, and struggled mightily in his next time out after both of them.

Leyland remembers those, but he didn't know Fister had never come this close to a shutout.

"I was going to take him out, only because I worried about the pitch count," Leyland said. "But he's never had a shutout. So he said, 'Please let me get it, let me take a shot at it.' So I said, 'All right, I'm going to give you a couple hitters, but you'd better make it quick.' And I'm glad I did."

Thing is, Fister already tries to make it quick.

"Less than fifteen pitches an inning," he said of his goal. "It doesn't change anything for me."

Fister's first four pitches of the ninth were fastballs, before dropping a curveball that Josh Willingham swung at and missed for strike three. Three pitches later, he fanned Justin Morneau for the third time on the day. With the sellout crowd of 40,586 up and cheering, his first-pitch strike to Ryan Doumit pushed him past the 115-pitch mark.

He missed with his curveball, but his slider got an easy groundout to second for the final out. Fister walked none and struck out seven, a stark contrast from the command issues that marked Monday's loss to the White Sox in Chicago.

"Fister was unbelievable," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "As the game went along and the shadows were out there, this was a tough time of day anyway. You could see the guys really having a hard time. Great changeup. Good breaking ball. His sinker was going everywhere. He made it really really tough on us."

Said Fister: "I had some fine-tuning with the mechanics today, and I really focused on the little things."

Cabrera already led the league in batting average and RBIs going into the day. Though his gap on the home-run leaderboard made the Triple Crown look like a dream a week ago, his five home runs over the previous six games had vaulted him onto Hamilton's doorstep. A 3-1 pitch from reliever Anthony Swarzak set up the shot to give him a share of the lead.

"Fastball, middle-in," Cabrera said. "I was kind of like, 'Please go out.'"

Cabrera's shot carried over the left-field fence, as Willingham watched it in retreat until he ran out of room. The chants of M-V-P followed Cabrera around the bases.

Cabrera's blast gave Detroit an 8-0 lead after a five-run third inning put the Tigers in command and chased Twins starter Sam Deduno. Former Twin Delmon Young's three-run homer provided the bulk of the damage before Andy Dirks tripled and scored a batter later.

"It's like a freight train. We couldn't stop them," Gardenhire said. "We couldn't get a pitcher warmed up quick enough and next thing you know you're down whatever, seven runs just like that."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.