Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer gets shelled early, relaxes to shine in third inning
After 25 pitches, manager Ron Gardenhire decided to end the misery with one out and the bases loaded. Fulmer tossed three innings (only seven outs) in Monday's intrasquad game at Comerica Park, allowing three runs on five hits and two walks with three strikeouts.
But Gardenhire isn't concerned after seeing Fulmer's 10-pitch third inning, when he retired Cameron Maybin, Christin Stewart and Harold Castro in order. He tried to throw upper-90s fastballs but eventually relaxed and simply focused on making his pitches.
"When you start muscling up, (that) kind of always works in reverse," Gardenhire said. "I think he felt that too."
Last week, Fulmer made his intrasquad debut and pitched in a live game for the first time in 16 months. He's recovering from right knee surgery and Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2019 season.
On Monday, he threw 57 pitches (33 strikes).
"You got to understand that he's been out a long time," Gardenhire said, "and this kid wants to play and wants to pitch. It's going to take a little while before he can totally relax and do what he has done his whole life."
There's little doubt Fulmer, 27, is going to make the active roster once the season begins July 24 at Cincinnati, but it remains unclear whether his role will be as a starter or reliever. Gardenhire said the decision will be made based on the stability of his arm but could be influenced by the health of other pitchers.
Right now, Fulmer has more to prove and needs to combine the tools he has gained from rehabilitation sessions and intrasquad games.
"There's options," Gardenhire said. "He's competing out there; he's excited. His first two innings he had to battle through some things, but those are good signs because he got through the third inning relaxed and the ball came out better."
In the top of the first, he walked JaCoby Jones and gave up consecutive singles to Victor Reyes and Cameron Maybin, before walking Christin Stewart to drive in a run. He got Herald Castro to fly out before Gardenhire pulled the plug.
Trotting back to the dugout, Fulmer was met by pitching coach Rick Anderson to discuss what happened.
"I know he probably wishes he had more (velocity), but it's coming out good," Jordy Mercer said. "It's just good to see him get out there and compete. It's been a while since he's thrown in competition. It's a little different than throwing a bullpen or throwing a sim game.
"But the stuff is there. He just needs to refine it, which is going to take a little bit of time."
Fulmer threw 22 pitches in the second and recorded all three outs, but a Jordy Mercer single and Grayson Greiner double were enough to set up a two-run single from Willi Castro for a 3-0 Team Maybin lead.
His third inning was perfect.
In total, Fulmer struck out Jones, Maybin and Dawel Lugo.
"He wants to do well, and I think your body tenses up a little bit and the ball doesn't come out as well," Gardenhire said. "His last inning, he just finally relaxed."
Fulmer tossed 25 pitches (15 strikes) in his first intrasquad outing July 8, allowing one run (unearned) on one hit with one strikeout.
The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year had his best year in his first season in majors, going 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 26 starts (159 innings) with 132 strikeouts against 42 walks. He made the All-Star team in 2017, but went 3-12 with a 4.69 ERA across 132⅓ innings in 2018.