Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer ready to join rotation: 'Probably as an opener type'

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer is back.

And for two innings Wednesday in an exhibition against the Cincinnati Reds, the 27-year-old appeared to have regained his 2016 American League Rookie of the Year form — like when he escaped a first-inning jam with two runners in scoring position, or when he fanned three straight in the second frame.

Manager Ron Gardenhire isn't officially saying, but all signs point to a tandem of Fulmer and left-hander Tyler Alexander starting Monday's home opener.

After Fulmer's two innings, Alexander tossed a pair of his own.

"We like it," Gardenhire said after Wednesday's game. "We're not going to announce our plans to the world so they know what's coming, so I'm not going to tell you exactly what's going to happen. That could happen, but we're not guaranteeing it."

Tigers observations from Wednesday: Fulmer sharp, bats not in exhibition loss ]

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer (32) pitches the first inning of the exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Fulmer allowed a single to Phillip Ervin and a line-drive double to Josh VanMeter to start the contest, putting two runners in scoring position with no outs. He bounced back by retiring Eugenio Suarez, Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas.

"I looked at Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and said, 'What are we doing?' And then, he was lights out," Gardenhire said. "That's how it goes. You don't panic."

When Fulmer, who later explained he was "a little jittery" to pitch, returned to the dugout, he looked at Gardenhire and said, "Were you ready to take me out after two hitters?"

Gardenhire's response: "No. You're one of our pitchers."

He returned in the second inning and struck out Matt Davidson, Nick Senzel and Curt Casali — all on fastballs.

[ Tigers' Fulmer ready to return in 2020: 'Best shape I've ever seen' ]

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer poses for a Fox Sports Detroit production on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, FL.

While Fulmer's physical return from Tommy John surgery was impressive, he showed his mental strength by carving through the heart of Cincinnati's order despite a rocky start. Until Wednesday, he hadn't pitched against a non-Tiger in 22 months. He has since passed every test in his rehab and only needs to focus on increasing his stamina.

At this point, Fulmer's in a more advanced stage than he initially expected.

"A little adrenaline rush facing another team for the first time," he said. "But again, it's the first game for me. There are no minor league rehab starts. There were just lots of bullpens, lots of live BPs and a couple of intrasquad games. For the first real game, I thought it went fantastic."

[ Fulmer shows up in shape; time to see if elbow measures up ]

Against the Reds, he only threw one changeup, leaning instead on his fastball and a newfound curveball, a weapon he put in his arsenal during rehab. He continued its development at the team's facility in Lakeland, Florida, once the COVID-19 pandemic stopped baseball.

"I think it just sets up a bunch of other pitches for me," Fulmer said. "Having something below 80 miles per hour and get some guys timing off a bit to come back with the fastball."

For now, the Tigers have only announced three starters: left-hander Matthew Boyd (Friday), right-hander Ivan Nova (Saturday) and righty Spencer Turnbull (Sunday). But it only seems right Fulmer takes the mound when the team returns to Comerica Park on Monday against the Kansas City Royals.

That's because he's finally ready to put himself back on the map.

"A big moment for our team and I'm sure for him," Gardenhire said. "I know that for a fact. So it's a good thing to see this kid bouncing back like this.

"Now we see where we go at home."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold