DETROIT -- Jim Leyland looked at the state of his Tigers bullpen Friday night, with Doug Fister set to make his first start in three weeks, and openly worried.
"We've got major problems," the manager said at that point.
Less than 24 hours later, he had six scoreless innings from Fister and three solid innings of relief from Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit. He had a much brighter outlook, well beyond the 4-1 win over the Rockies on Saturday afternoon before a sellout crowd of 41,800 at Comerica Park.
Leyland can see the injury problems, which had been taking up seven lines of the Tigers' pregame media notes, finally dwindling. He can see the team he was supposed to have finally coming back. It's not there yet, but it's in sight.
"I've never had so many moves in my managerial career as we've had this year," Leyland said. "In and out, there's something going on every day. There's freaking roster moves, getting a guy on, outrighting a guy, I've never been through this [much] in all the years I've managed. ...
"We're not doing real good, but we are doing a pretty good job of weathering the storm. And if we get everybody back, shame on us if we don't do something."
Getting Fister back, and in the form he had last year, could be the biggest return of all. For someone who hadn't pitched in a game in nearly three weeks, and who really hadn't pitched much all season, Fister looked like he was in his old form. He hid the rust well until the sixth inning, but the pitches he threw looked polished.
Fister (1-3) not only earned his first win of the year in seven tries, he may well have saved the Tigers' pitching staff. Three of the six Detroit relievers available -- Luis Marte, Luke Putkonen and just-recalled Thad Weber -- had fewer than 15 innings of Major League work on their resumes. Two others, Coke and Duane Below, are left-handers. Benoit was initially expected to be out, but was available for an inning with Jose Valverde unavailable after his six-run appearance in the 10th inning Friday night.
In other words, Coke and Benoit were the only regulars among their late-inning relief corps who were available. By the time Fister was pulled, the Tigers had a three-run lead to hand over to Coke as he entered to bridge the seventh and eighth innings for Benoit, who gave up a run in the ninth.
Under normal circumstances, Fister could have gone at least another inning. As it was, having missed nearly three weeks, his 82 pitches were enough. His 54 strikes out of them explained a lot about his efficiency.
"For me, it was really just a focus on going out there and executing," Fister said. "That's the kind of execution that I go for every time I go out there and pitch. Let's get these guys to make bad contact within the first three pitches, and if that takes me farther into the game, then it takes me farther into the game."
Other than a fastball in the upper 80s, much as it was at the start of the season, Fister looked about as close to his 2011 season as he did when he blanked Seattle for seven innings on May 7. His curveball, the pitch that became so critical for him down the stretch last year after his trade to Detroit, was heavy and effective, helping him rack up four strikeouts out of the first 10 batters.
"I had never faced him before, so he was new to me," Rockies leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler said. "He had some deception, he throws across his body, so that was a little tough to pick up."
Fister retired Colorado's first 11 batters before Carlos Gonzalez hit a single down the third-base line in the fourth. Miguel Cabrera stopped it with a dive toward the bag, but had no chance at throwing out his fellow Venezuelan superstar.
"It was great seeing Dougie back out there on the mound," Coke said. "For a minute there, I was thinking he was going to do something really special. ... His offspeed and fastball and sinker were ridiculous. He was working guys in and out, top of the zone, bottom of the zone. He was just showing them how to do it. It was fun to watch."
So was their offense, such as it was. While the Tigers struggled to break out their offense against a left-handed starter for the second game in a row, they took what they could get. In Saturday's case, they were handed a couple runs off talented prospect Christian Friedrich.
Miguel Cabrera's first-inning home run, an opposite-field shot for his 14th of the year, was actually the Tigers' lone run-scoring hit. It was, however, the first of two laps around the bases for him. The other was more hectic.
Off the bat, Cabrera's fifth-inning comebacker looked like an out until it bounced off Friedrich's glove. He still had a chance at throwing out Cabrera until he threw wildly to first, sending Cabrera on a mad dash. Once catcher Wilin Rosario tried to throw out Cabrera at third and missed Jordan Pacheco, Cabrera was speeding up again and heading home.
"That's the old Sandlot, Little League home run," Leyland said. "That was fun to see."
Austin Jackson's bases-loaded walk in the fourth, the second of four walks for him, accounted for the other run off Friedrich. Jackson's third-walk and Cabrera's ensuing single set up Prince Fielder's sacrifice fly in the seventh.