Doug Fister was smooth in his rehab starts and is ready to rejoin Washington's rotation. He just might wish it were coming against a different opposing starter.
The right-hander will come off the disabled list to face Chris Archer and the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night at Nationals Park, where the Tampa Bay ace made his MLB debut almost exactly three years ago.
Fister (2-2, 4.31 ERA) has been sidelined over a month with right forearm tightness. In two rehab starts split between Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg, he was 0-1 with a 0.93 ERA, allowing nine hits and striking out 10 with no walks in 9 2-3 innings.
He last pitched in the majors May 14 in San Diego and clearly wasn't healthy, allowing seven runs and eight hits in two innings.
"It was not allowing me to get my job done, and that's something that we can't toy around with," Fister said. "We've got to win games here, period, and if that means me taking a step out, that's what I had to do."
Fister's best work since joining the Nationals before last season has come at home, where he's 9-2 with a 2.12 ERA in 14 outing, including a five-start unbeaten streak. He's 2-3 with a 2.88 ERA in five starts and a relief appearance against Tampa Bay, all coming through 2013 with Detroit.
The Nationals also hope to have Denard Span back after the center fielder missed Wednesday's 5-0 loss with back tightness. When healthy, he's been one of their best hitters, and he has a 13-game hitting streak against Tampa.
They'll need all the help they can get against Archer (7-4, 2.00), who is unbeaten in his last seven starts with a 4-0 record and 1.49 ERA.
The only time the right-hander has allowed three runs in that span was Saturday's 5-4 home victory over the Chicago White Sox. Archer didn't earn the decision after surrendering three runs and five hits in seven innings after he'd given up a combined three earned runs over his previous five starts.
Archer has also issued just one walk while striking out 43 in his last 30 innings of work over four starts, going at least seven innings in each.
In NL parks, the 26-year-old is 1-2 with a 1.30 ERA in five career starts. The first of those came in Washington on June 20, 2012, when he lost 3-2 after allowing three runs - one earned - and three hits in six innings of his only start in the series. He's certainly matured since.
"When you first come up, you're kind of looking over your shoulder and you give up a run and you're like, 'Oh man, is that going to be the difference?'" Archer told MLB's official website.
"So you're not in the moment and you're not going with the process. You're way more result-oriented. And my first couple years taught me not to be, because you're not going to get the best out of yourself. My stuff seems like it's so much better. I actually know how to pitch."
The clubs are playing the last of four games split between Tampa and Washington. They split two at Tropicana Field before the Rays (37-30) had four pitchers combine for a two-hitter Wednesday after the Nationals (34-32) notched 23 in a 16-4 victory Tuesday.
The Rays, winners of eight of 10 on the road, got their offense mostly from Steven Souza Jr. and Curt Casali. Souza, who began his career in Washington last season, was 3 for 4 with a home run and has gone deep in two of his last four games in the park. Casali was 3 for 3 with his first big league homer.
The Nationals have dropped three straight at home and six of seven. They haven't dropped four straight home games since a six-game skid in July 2013.