Doug Fister vs. Ivan Nova In Game 5: How In The Heck Did We Get Here?

NEW YORK, NY - Doug Fister #58 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch in the second inning against the New York Yankees during Game One of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees paid their players over $308,000,000 this year. Sure, the Yankees paid the bulk of that, but it's not like the Tigers are making players put their own money in the clubhouse vending machines. These are big-money teams, with big-money expectations, and most of those dollars were spent while meticulously planning to gain a competitive advantage.

This leads us to Game 5 of the American League Division Series. In which a $100 million team will start Doug Fister, and a $200 million team will start Ivan Nova.

Which isn't to suggest that either pitcher has been bad. They've both been really, really good in 2011. But how in the heck did we get here? How did two teams that expected to contend come to rely on two pitchers that no one expected to be here at this time last year?

Take Fister. He was amazing this season. If you use FIP, here were the pitchers who ranked directly behind him:

Cole Hamels
Chris Carpenter
Felix Hernandez
Jordan Zimmermann
Mat Latos
Tim Lincecum
Jered Weaver
Ian Kennedy
Jaime Garcia
C.J. Wilson
Justin Masterson
Daniel Hudson
David Price

No one would have a problem with Cole Hamels going in a Game 5. If Felix Hernandez or Tim Lincecum were starting, the talking point would be that the Tigers had the huge advantage. Doug Fister, this year at least, has been just as good.

The disbelief has to do with how quickly Fister became important to a contending team. From the moment he joined the Tigers, he became the steadying calm behind Verlander, but before that he was on the Mariners. The Mariners. Can you even think of one person who follows that team, or can be bothered to think or write about them? I sure can't.

And last year, Fister languished as an iffy pitcher on a forgettable team. He fared better with FIP (3.65) than ERA (4.11), but he was just a guy with great control who had problems keeping runs off the board while pitching at Safeco Field.

On Thursday, he'll start the Tigers' most important game since 2006. Makes sense. He walked fewer hitters in the last two months of the season than CC Sabathia did on Monday night.

Ivan Nova was similarly nondescript last year. As a prospect, he wasn't much of one. Prospect hounds like gaudy strikeout numbers -- Nova didn't have them in the minors. If the strikeout numbers weren't there, at least he could have Fisterian control. He didn't. He walked nearly three batters per nine in the minors, and struck out 6.4. Those are Elmer Dessens/Todd Wellemeyer numbers, except Nova was doing that in the minors.

To their credit, the Yankees never had the same doubts. They didn't throw money at Jon Garland or Kevin Correia. They figured Nova was good enough to start for the Yankees, who either win the World Series or fail. They were right. But the only way he was going to be starting Game 5 of anything in 2011 was if the Yankees had some sort of catastrophic run of injuries.

Or if Nova pitched as well or better than any non-Sabathia on the staff. Which he did. On Thursday, he'll start the most important game the Yankees have had since ... well, they have important games every damned year. That's not the point.

Maybe instead of all these words, maybe it would be easier just to explain it with a hypothetical scenario. A 2012 ALDS, Red Sox vs. Angels. Both teams have a recent history of success; neither team is shy about spending money. It's the fifth game. The winner moves on to the ALCS.

Josh Tomlin vs. Matt Shoemaker. That's the match-up. The Sox will acquire Tomlin in a deadline deal, and Shoemaker, quasi-prospect, will come up from the minors to earn the Angels' trust. It will make sense next September because you've had time to get used to it. But right now, you look at the idea of a Tomlin/Shoemaker showdown in the 2012 playoffs and say, "Nah."

That's what you would have done with Fister/Nova last September. It's the biggest game of the season for two large-market teams, and it's Fister/Nova for a trip the Championship Series. A lot can happen in 365 days, even if you try to spend enough to keep the surprises at bay.

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