NEW YORK — Dave Dombrowski has seen Doug Fister do this before.
Six years ago, Dombrowski acquired Fister for the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline and watched the right-hander go 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA over the season’s final two months. On the list of second-half pitching rolls by a midseason import, it was up there with Rick Sutcliffe for the Chicago Cubs in 1984, Doyle Alexander for the Tigers in 1987, Randy Johnson for the Houston Astros in 1998 and CC Sabathia for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.
Fister hasn’t been that good since he and Dombrowski reunited with the Boston Red Sox in June. As a matter of fact, he didn’t make it beyond the fifth inning in three of his first four starts and looked like little more than a placeholder until the Sox’s rotation returned to full health.
But Fister flummoxed the New York Yankees for seven innings Friday night in a 4-1 Red Sox victory and improved to 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA in his past six starts. And lately, it’s beginning to feel a little bit like 2011 all over again.
Just ask Dombrowski.
“Yeah, he’s really pitching well,” the Red Sox president of baseball operations said on his way out of Yankee Stadium. “He knows how to pitch. He’s really very similar to what he was then.”
Indeed, Fister is the same command-and-control artist that he has always been. Never a high-velocity pitcher — his fastball has averaged 89.3 mph this season, a tick below the 90.9 mark in 2011 — Fister utilizes his signature sinker to induce weak contact, typically on the ground.
At least that was the report Dombrowski received from trusted scout Eddie Bane. At Dombrowski’s direction, Bane watched Fister throw a bullpen session at Fresno State during spring training. Then, after Fister signed with the Los Angeles Angels, Bane attended one of his three Triple-A starts.
“He pitched six innings of one-run baseball in about an hour,” Bane said via e-mail. “I just really have always liked his tempo – lightning fast worker – and the way he can upset hitters’ rhythm.”
And don’t look now, but as the Red Sox organize their rotation for October with the very real possibility that injured David Price won’t have enough time to rebuild the arm strength to be a starter, Fister is positioning himself to at least be in the conversation as an alternative to struggling Eduardo Rodriguez as a potential Game 4 starter.
“He’s been such a boost to this team and our rotation,” manager John Farrell said. “He pitches with such conviction, and you see it in his body language. You see it in his attack plan. He’s got a clear understanding of what he’s trying to do on the mound — a veteran guy who knows what his capabilities and his limitations are.”
It helps that Fister wasn’t sure in early May if he would ever pitch in the big leagues again.
Signed by the Los Angeles Angels on May 20 and released a month later after three Triple-A starts, Fister hooked on with the Red Sox, who were desperate for pitching depth. But at age 33, it was unclear if Fister had enough left to stick around once Rodriguez returned from a knee injury.
For a while, it didn’t look like it. But when Fister moved to the bullpen in July, he made a change to his mechanics, altering his stride. Since he returned to the rotation in place of Price, he has dominated the Cleveland Indians twice and taken a hard-luck loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
And on a day when Price threw 29 pitches in a fastballs-only bullpen session that Farrell labeled “impressive” but also represented only a small step in his comeback, Fister beat the Yankees to stretch the Red Sox’s division lead back to 5½ games.
“I’ve definitely been blessed,” Fister said. “To start this season late and kind of go from where I was to where I am, it’s an honor for me to be a part of this club.”
Fister isn’t the only under-the-radar midseason move by Dombrowski that is paying off. Eduardo Nunez, acquired in a July 25 trade, belted his eighth homer in 137 at-bats for the Red Sox after hitting only four in 302 at-bats for the San Francisco Giants. And reliever Addison Reed, a trade-deadline addition from the New York Mets, tossed a scoreless eighth inning.
Other American League contenders made splashier moves. The Yankees traded for third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the Chicago White Sox and starter Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Indians picked up Jay Bruce from the New York Mets. And Thursday night, the Astros landed Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers.
But Fister didn’t make any headlines in 2011, either, until he wound up being the best deadline addition in the game.
“Eddie Bane told us when he scouted him, he said, ‘Dave, he looks like maybe he’s not [throwing] quite as hard, but he’s very close,'” Dombrowski said. “It’s the ability to pitch and change speeds. He uses his breaking ball, gets ahead of hitters, commands the strike zone, and he’s not afraid of the competition. I don’t really see a lot of difference in his stuff.”
And as long as Fister continues to turn back time to 2011, the Red Sox will be glad they have him around.