DETROIT -- Doug Fister says that he approaches every inning like it's part of a scoreless game, regardless of the actual score. He's had a lot of innings in actual scoreless games lately.
He had eight of them on Wednesday night until the Rays put up a three-run ninth inning in a 3-0 Tigers loss. He had seven of them in his start before that.
"The starting pitcher's job is to keep you in the game, give you a chance to win it, and sometimes that's the luck of the draw," manager Jim Leyland said. "Last night we scored 10 runs, and tonight we didn't get any."
Six days after Fister tossed seven scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts in a no-decision -- becoming the first Tigers pitcher since at least 1916 to do that -- he topped that in a duel with Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb. Fister disposed of Rays hitters so easily that he had thrown just 91 pitches when he came back out the ninth.
He should have been trying to protect a lead and finish a complete-game win. Once again he was just trying to hold up his end. The Rays, needing just a little offense to win, finally got to him.
Add up the zeros, and Fister threw 21 scoreless innings in between the Twins' three-run opening inning against him on May 25 and the Rays' three-run ninth against him on Wednesday. The Tigers have scored two runs of support for him in that time.
This is the same Tigers offense that leads the Majors in hitting and entered Wednesday trailing only the Red Sox in runs scored. Yet Detroit has now been shut out three times in eight games, and six times on the season. The last three shutouts have been decided in the final inning.
Include the postseason, and last year's Tigers team was still blanked just five times. The 2011 Tigers were shut out five times in the regular season.
Yet this Tigers team with six shutouts this year has scored in double digits eight times, including two of the last four games. They entered Wednesday with four starters ranked among the American League's top 14 in run support. Fister was 14th.
The Tigers have been blanked by some lesser pitchers over this stretch. Cobb, however, was not one of them. And after a pair of 1-0, 11-inning losses to the Pirates last week, this one didn't take quite so long.
"Sometimes you get a little frustrated," Leyland said, "because you're seeing a pitching performance against you and you think he's not that good and you think you should score some runs. But in tonight's case ... I mean, we had a couple of shots, but this guy was terrific."
One night after the Tigers handed the previously unbeaten Matt Moore the worst outing of his career, Cobb posted the kind of outing many expected of Moore. And the same Tigers lineup that had patient, tenacious at-bats to wear down Moore early never got anything going against his teammate.
"It felt like Bugs Bunny was pitching today," Torii Hunter said. "When you swing the ball just drops out of the zone. It's like it didn't want to get hit."
Hunter was 6-for-9 off Cobb entering the game. He went 0-for-4 against him on Wednesday.
Alex Avila, who had a double and a walk off Cobb, said much the same.
"He's got a good split-finger fastball that drops off the table at 87 mph. It's tough to pick up, tough to hit," Avila said. "It got quite a few of us chasing."
Not only did Fister (5-3) hold the Rays scoreless on four hits over his first eight innings, the only time runners reached scoring position over that stretch came in the third. A bizarre double play erased them both.
Jose Lobaton's ground-rule double and Yunel Escobar's single put runners at the corners with one out for leadoff man Sam Fuld, but Prince Fielder's diving stop and throw home forced Lobaton to reverse course and try to scramble back to third. Avila ran him down just in front of the bag, then lunged to tag out Escobar trying to take the base. It was scored as a 3-2 double play, with both putouts going to Avila.
"When I tagged [Lobaton], I just reacted and got lucky," Avila said
The Tigers put a runner on third base with one out in the bottom half of the frame, but Avisail Garcia made a mistake of aggression trying to get into scoring position. In getting caught trying to steal second, he removed the sacrifice fly opportunity for Andy Dirks, who hit an inning-ending comebacker.
Detroit put runners on second base in the sixth, seventh and eighth, but the Rays escaped all three threats with a strikeout, two of them against Fielder after intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera.
Fielder had been 8-for-9 with a walk and 10 RBIs over Cabrera's previous 10 walks, intentional or otherwise, but Rays manager Joe Maddon was willing to take his chances with Dirks on second and first base open in the sixth. Cobb fanned Fielder on three pitches.
After Cobb stranded Avila by fanning Omar Infante in the seventh, his errant throw in the eighth put Dirks on second with one out. Again, Cobb retired Hunter with first base open for Cabrera, and he promptly put him there.
Instead of matching a lefty reliever against the left-handed-hitting Fielder, who had been batting .373 against lefties this year, Maddon went to righty Joel Peralta (1-2), who has retired lefties and righties at virtually the same rate over his career. He struck out Fielder again.
Fuld's bunt single in the ninth and Ben Zobrist's single through the right side set up Fister's demise. Matt Joyce's sac fly broke the deadlock before RBIs from Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings added insurance runs for Fernando Rodney's 12th save.