MILWAUKEE — When Mike Fiers reported to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix for spring training last February, his career was hanging in the balance.
Fiers was so much of a forgotten man in the organization that he pitched just two innings for the Milwaukee Brewers in spring training before he was assigned to minor-league camp in early March.
Emotionally and physically, Fiers had a lot to prove in order to get another chance with the Brewers after a disastrous year in 2013.
"I definitely wanted to start with the team out of spring, but that didn’t happen," Fiers said. "I just tried to stay determined and be ready for my call-up."
The last time Fiers left a big-league mound it was following a performance he called "gutless" to reporters in June of 2013. It was fair to wonder if the right-hander who dominated for a stretch in 2012 was just a flash in the pan.
Fiers didn’t waste much time this season proving he was a different pitcher than he was a year ago, dominating right away for Triple-A Nashville. Although he allowed just three earned runs over his first five starts and had a 2.52 ERA in the first half of the Triple-A season, Fiers’ path back to the Brewers was blocked.
All five of Milwaukee’s starters pitched well in the early going, while top prospect Jimmy Nelson was ahead of Fiers in the pecking order of who would be called up if a starter was needed.
While Nelson’s opportunity came in July, Fiers was stuck in the minor leagues. He was destined for a September call-up, which would have left a short period of time for an impression.
Then came Matt Garza’s oblique injury in early August. The Brewers needed a fill-in during a key stretch of the season and decided it was time to give Fiers another chance, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle yet again.
"When they called me up, I just didn’t want to let them down," Fiers said. "And I didn’t want to let myself down.
"I wanted to pitch to the ability that I know I can pitch at, and that’s what I did these past couple of months."
Fiers made his return to the big leagues on Aug. 9, limiting the Los Angeles Dodgers to just one run on five hits over eight innings. For a follow up act, Fiers became just the eighth pitcher in the last 100 years to strike out at least 14 batters in six or fewer innings.
The quality starts kept coming, causing manager Ron Roenicke to keep Fiers in the rotation when Garza returned from the disabled list. In all, eight of Fiers’ 10 starts were quality. The two that weren’t were only because he didn’t go the required six innings, as he didn’t allow more than three earned runs in a start.
Fiers finished 6-4 with a 2.09 ERA in 10 starts, walking 14 and striking out 71 over 64 2/3 innings as a starter.
"Numbers-wise, yeah they are great numbers, but I feel like I still could have done better," Fiers said. "I need to take that into consideration too, because there were times where I didn’t make the right pitch or didn’t get the pitch down. I think there’s room for improvement. I just have to be ready to go next year."
Although his year ended with a loss to the Cubs, Fiers went into the offseason with a much better feeling than he did a year ago. The 29-year-old not only struggled on the mound in 2013 but had his year end in injury due to a fractured arm suffered when hit by a line drive in Triple-A in June. Fiers pitched last season with his mind on his mother, who was suffering from an illness. She died in August, leaving another hurdle for the right-hander to overcome.
The fact he was able to find success in the big leagues after battling through a year of personal loss and struggle is satisfying to Fiers.
"It was a tough year last year," Fiers said. "It is one thing to have that season and not rebound from it, so the way I was able to come back and pitch this year, I’m happy for myself.
"A lot of family and friends helped me along the way, so big credit to them and the coaching staff and my teammates here that were always behind me. I feel like that definitely helped me along the way."
The Brewers could certainly make changes between now and the beginning of next season, but as of right now, Fiers will not be a forgotten man when he reports to spring training. With Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and Wily Peralta under contract and Yovani Gallardo also likely to return (club option for 2015), it seems as if Fiers and Nelson, barring a trade or injury, will compete for the final spot in the rotation.
"He’s proven that he can pitch here," Roenicke said. "We’ll see how he fits with our starters. We’re looking at six or seven guys. It also depends on the moves (general manager) Doug (Melvin) makes in the off-season."
While it may seem as if Fiers has put himself in a good spot for next season, he’s approaching the offseason as if he has plenty to prove.
"I think (I’ve put myself in a good position), but I need to be ready to go in spring training to earn my spot," Fiers said. "I’m not going to sit around and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a spot next year.’ That’s something I won’t do. I’m going to be ready to go and show them I’m ready to go in spring."