Chicago — Yes, he said, he needed this one.
“This was a big start,” said Mike Fiers, the veteran right-hander who pitched six, three-hit shutout innings Sunday, helping the Tigers beat the White Sox 1-0 and sweep three-game series. “The way I ended last year, my last four or five starts, I wasn’t the pitcher I am.”
Not even close.
He was pulled from the Astros' rotation and left off their postseason roster last September and he was tagged for 22 runs and 25 hits in 12 innings in his last three starts.
“I got to a place I couldn’t get out of,” he said. “It’s not good. A lot of pitchers have been there. But you just stay with it, trust your coaching — Chris Bosio helped me a lot this spring — and for it to pay off now is awesome.
“It’s an awesome confidence booster for me, but also for the team.”
It sure makes the Tigers' one-year, $6 million investment in him look better, especially after his spring was derailed by lower back stiffness that forced him to start the year on the disabled list.
“He’s a veteran and he was always telling us, ‘I’m fine, I’ll be fine,'” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You trust the veteran guys. Some of the young guys you worry about more, but with the veterans, you say, ‘Here you go, let’s see what you got.’”
His performance Sunday was clinical. His fastball maxed out at 89 mph, but by the fifth and sixth inning, he was getting swings and misses with it. He was spotting it expertly, mixing it with a cutter, change-up and curveball.
“The times I caught him this spring, he was most effective when he’s adding and subtracting and going back and forth,” catcher John Hicks said. “He was throwing all his pitches for strikes. We were able to add with the fastball (88-89), subtract with the change-up (80-83), subtract some more with the curve (69-72) and add with the cutter (87-88).
“He was in and out with all of it and he kept those guys off-balance. Later in the game, we had thrown so many change-ups and curveballs, his fastball was playing up and he as blowing it by people.”
He allowed only three singles, none after the third inning, and struck out six. He got 15 swings and misses (seven off his four-seam fastball) and 15 called strikes (10 off his four-seamer).
“That’s what I have to do,” Fiers said. “I’m not going to overpower a lot of guys. When it looks like I do it’s because they’re off-balance. I need to keep them off-balance.”
The average exit velocity on balls the White Sox put in play was 79.3 mph. Only two balls were struck at 100 mph or harder. It was suggested that the ball might not have been carrying in the chilly (36-degree) weather.
“It’s not carrying because they didn’t hit many barrels,” Fiers said with a chuckle. “That’s a very good hitting team, but we pitched very well this whole series.”
The only time he was in trouble was the first inning. He hit Jose Abreu and walked Matt Davidson after allowing a one-out single to Avisail Garcia.
“I was trying to make my pitches too nasty,” he said. “I have to stay within myself, trust my pitches and make everything look the same. Early on I was trying to make my change-up move a lot more and my fastball harder.
“I’ve definitely learned from my experience today, to stay within myself and pitch.”
He got Nicky Delmonico to hit a soft liner that shortstop Jose Iglesias ran down and ended the first-inning threat by getting a soft ground ball from Welington Castillo.
“He’s got some deception,” Gardenhire said. “You saw that today. That’s why he’s been in the big leagues a long time. We know he doesn’t overpower hitters, but he’s got deception. He pitches all around the zone. He changes speeds well.
“Today you saw vintage Mike Fiers.”
The White Sox never threatened after the first inning. Fiers retired the last 11 batters he faced, and 16 of the last 18.
The Tigers, who had two hits all day, scored the winning run in the first inning and it was unearned off White Sox right-hander Reynaldo Lopez.
Leonys Martin, who got the Tigers' only two hits on the day, singled and stole second. He went to third on a passed ball. Miguel Cabrera brought him home with a sacrifice fly to center.
“We talked about being an aggressive team,” said Gardenhire, after the Tigers stole seven bases in the series. “Guys going first to third, trying to force the issue. We don’t like to stand around much. If you have some speed, we’re going to try and use it.”
The Tigers drew five walks off Lopez, but only one of those runners got as far as second base.
“In a game like this, you’ve got to take advantage of everything you can get,” Martin said. “It’s tough to play baseball in this weather, so you have to do all the little things.”
The Tigers bullpen locked it down with three scoreless innings. The relievers have allowed just three runs in the last 21⅔ innings.
Alex Wilson and Daniel Stumpf worked a scoreless seventh and Joe Jimenez pitched an impressive eighth — striking out Yolmer Sanchez on a wicked slider and Yoan Moncada looking at a 95-mph fastball.
That left the ninth to closer Shane Greene.
Garcia reached on an error by third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Candelario made a slick back-hand play on the ball, but lost the handle when he tried to transfer the ball to his throwing hand.
But Greene induced a 6-4-3 double-play from slugger Jose Abreu and struck out Matt Davidson looking at a 95-mph fastball, earning his second save.
“We’ve been playing good baseball as a team and we’re going to keep moving forward,” Martin said.
The sweep in Chicago was the first by the Tigers since September 2011.