PHOENIX — Mike Fiers was one of the great surprises of the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers season.
Promoted from Triple-A Nashville in late May to make a spot start after pitchers Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada went down with injuries, Fiers stuck with the team and became one of the Brewers’ most reliable starters over the summer.
“He surprised us last year,” Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz said of the right-hander. “But, you know, he’d had a great season in the minors the year before with a bunch of wins, so we knew the ability was there. Really, he’s one of the reasons we were able to get back in the race last season. Every five days, it seemed like he either won a game or put us in position to win a game.”
Fiers made his 2012 debut on May 29, earning a victory in Los Angeles while holding the Dodgers to three hits and one run over seven innings. He continued to pitch well into August, averaging more than a strikeout per inning and lowering his ERA to 1.77 at the end of July.
“I felt good right away last year,” Fiers said. “We have some great fielders, and they played great defense. That made it easy to go out, make pitches and pound the strike zone knowing what those guys could do.”
On Aug. 13, Fiers had a tough outing at Colorado, giving up eight runs in two innings. The start was a turning point, and not in a good way. In his final ten starts, Fiers had only two quality starts and saw his ERA rise from 1.80 to 3.74. He finished the season with a 9-10 record.
Fatigue may have been an issue for the 2009 22nd-round pick. His 182 2/3 innings pitched at Nashville and Milwaukee in 2012 were nearly 60 more than he had pitched in any of his three previous professional seasons. His performance dropped off notably in September as he posted a 7.21 ERA in his final six starts.
“I didn’t feel tired, but maybe I was tired,” Fiers said of his late-season slump. “I don’t know. I can’t figure out what happened. Or, it could’ve been hitters making adjustments to my approach. I don’t know what it was at the end of the year. I can’t put a finger on it.”
Kranitz isn’t ready to blame fatigue for Fiers’ finish, but he believes the 6-foot-3 Florida native has put the end of the 2012 season behind him.
“Guys are going to hit rough patches,” Kranitz said. “Mike hit one at the end of last year. Everybody has those. It’s about how you are going to bounce back from those patches that determines how successful you are. He’s a guy who doesn’t make excuses. He’s a stand-up guy, and that’s very good for a starting pitcher. He takes responsibility. He’s going to stand up for everything he does, and guys on a team, they really respect that.”
For his part, Fiers is focused on 2013 and securing a spot in the Brewers starting rotation.
“I’m just going to get ready for the season as well as I can,” he said. “My approach isn’t going to change. I’m still going to pound the strike zone with all of my pitches. The games are going to help. I may work on throwing some different pitches to different guys in some situations, but that’s it. I’m not going to get too comfortable. I want to work hard and earn my spot.”
Fiers has been impressive early this spring.
“I caught him in a bullpen yesterday and he looked great. He seems like he’s in great shape, and he threw real well,” catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “He attacks the zone and throws strikes. He’s also sneaky. He doesn’t throw real hard, but he’s got a deceptive delivery. He hides the ball real well. And he’s got great approach and mentality.”
Manager Ron Roenicke agreed that Fiers looks sharp.
“Health-wise, he’s in good shape,” Roenicke said. “He threw the other day, and the ball comes out of his hand great. His command has been very good. I know Rick has been very happy with his bullpens so far.”
Fiers isn’t one to let the ups and downs of 2012 or the early reviews on his work this spring change his approach.
“You have to earn everything in this game,” he said. “Nothing is given to you at this level. I know what I can do, but you can’t get too comfortable. I always want to feel like I have to earn a spot on the staff.”