ST. PETERSBURG -- Doug Fister came to the Tigers with the lowest run support in the American League. If anyone in the Tigers' rotation can win with Miguel Cabrera, Brennan Boesch and Alex Avila missing from the lineup behind him for various reasons, it's him.
In fact, he did. And yet, with his seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 shutout of the Rays on Thursday afternoon, he was simply following suit in the series at Tropicana Field.
For four days, the Rays pitching staff lived up to what manager Jim Leyland feared, holding Detroit to 11 runs and getting at least seven innings from all four starters. And still, the Tigers came within a ground ball of sweeping the series.
They were also within a ninth-inning hit-and-run play of potentially splitting the set.
"To be honest with you, we caught a lucky break," Leyland said of Thursday's game-ending double play. "If that ball's in the gap, the game is tied. That was just our series. But that was a heckuva win, heckuva series, really."
They'll take three out of four, especially given the way the third one set up. They got out of what Leyland called a hornet's nest with nary a sting, and added two more games onto their AL Central lead -- now 6 1/2 games over Cleveland, and seven games over the White Sox.
"It really says that we pitched good. That's the biggest thing," Leyland said. "We kind of countered their pitching this series. I'm not saying we can do that every series, but we countered their pitching a little bit this series, held them down, and we got just enough to win three games, which is huge.
"This could've been an 0-4 trip. I mean, that's how good that pitching is. So to come out of here with three wins, I'm very pleased."
He wasn't the only one. It wasn't a party in the visitors' clubhouse, but a quiet satisfaction. The Tigers just played some of their best baseball all year in what currently shapes up as their last scheduled series against a team with a winning record. The Indians and White Sox sit one and two games under .500, respectively, entering Friday.
"Every time we win a series, it's a step forward," said Joaquin Benoit, who set up Jose Valverde for an eventful 38th save in as many chances. "It's a great moment for us, and as long as we keep winning series, I think we're going to be good."
The Tigers knew they would be without Cabrera, who was with his wife in Miami on Thursday for the birth of their third child, Christopher Alexander. They had to go without Boesch once his sprained right thumb reached the point where he had to leave Wednesday's game.
Avila, meanwhile, had his first game off after playing every inning of the past 18 contests. His fill-in one-day callup Omir Santos, had never met Fister in his life. He spent his flight to Tampa watching video of Fister's starts on his iPad. Hours later, after a brief meeting with Fister to get acquainted and map out a game plan, Santos got the best view in the house to see Fister at his steady, efficient best.
"I downloaded some games from [Fister's time with] Seattle," Santos said. "I knew he was a sinkerballer, any pitch, any time, and that's why I was able to be on the same page with him today."
Once they took the field, it was almost like two different pitching styles at two different times. Fister had a nasty sinker he fired early and often for outs from Tampa Bay's first 13 batters before Casey Kotchman hit a fifth-inning liner off third baseman Wilson Betemit's glove for Tampa Bay's first baserunner.
"That is the focus every time I go out there," Fister said. "For the most part, it's trying to use the fastball as much as possible."
By that point, Fister had all the runs he needed. He didn't have Cabrera , Boesch or Avila, but the Tigers still had leadoff man Austin Jackson. And after going 0-for-12 through the first three games of the series, Jackson's leadoff home run put the Tigers in front from the game's third pitch and first strike.
"I tried to be a little more aggressive in that count," said Jackson, whose fifth-inning sacrifice fly scored Ryan Raburn for Detroit's other run. "I got myself in a good hitter's count and put good wood on the ball."
Those runs were it off Jeremy Hellickson (11-9) in his seven innings, but it was plenty for Fister (5-13). He had a 2-0 win, a 1-0 loss, a 2-1 loss and a 2-1 no-decision this season in Seattle. He can make 2-0 work.
After stranding five batters over his final three innings, mixing offspeed pitches and getting strikeouts, he showed why.
"I'm trying to take the same mindset, 0-0, every pitch," Fister said. "That means location. It's not so much velocity or stuff."
Fister needed just 99 pitches to last seven innings, scattering five hits with five strikeouts to improve to 3-1 with the Tigers. Benoit struck out the side around a Desmond Jennings double in the eighth to hand the lead to Valverde. That's where the Tigers caught their break after Kotchman's walk and Matt Joyce's single put the potential tying run on base. Rays manager Joe Maddon took a chance and put the runners in motion for Sam Fuld, who hit a slicing liner to right.
"It was a hit-and-run," Maddon said, "and [the ball] just did not want to go down. If that ball falls or hits a wall, then we've got a tie ballgame."
Instead, once Raburn caught it, Joyce had no chance of getting back. Raburn could've skipped the ball in, but threw a two-hopper to Don Kelly, who tagged Joyce as Valverde celebrated.