What Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer learned from a bad inning in his return

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer walked off the mound one out earlier than he would've liked.

Manager Ron Gardenhire didn't want to pull him, but after 47 pitches and three home runs allowed, he didn't have much of a choice.

Expected to max out at three innings, Fulmer made it just 2⅔ innings in his first outing since Sept. 15, 2018, allowing four runs on five hits and one walk in a 14-6 loss Monday at Comerica Park. He finished with two strikeouts, both coming from his slider.

"Just a little rusty," Fulmer said Monday. "Obviously, not going to make any excuses. I feel ready. I told everybody I was ready, and I need to do a better job next time. But it's hard to be angry at that because it did feel good to be out there."

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer throws a pitch during the first inning against the Royals at Comerica Park on Monday, July 27, 2020.

[ Tigers observations: Pitching woes spoil home opener in loss to Royals ]

Gardenhire plans to keep Fulmer as an "opener" all season, meaning it's unlikely he'll pitch deep into games until next year.

"We're probably going to stay with this program," Gardenhire said. "Hopefully, he gets through these three innings. He just got a little roughed up there at the end, but he made some really good pitches.

"If he has a little bump or might need a break, we'll put somebody else in there and give him a little off. But that's all just way down the road."

[ The coronavirus stole something special from Tigers fans: A Kaline tribute ]

His first mistake came on an 88 mph slider to 27-year-old Maikel Franco, who launched a line drive to left. After it cleared the fence, Fulmer went away from his slider — using fastballs (and one changeup) to get Alex Gordon and Franchy Cordero.

"Some good spots in there where he was executing," catcher Austin Romine said. "For the most part, a little mixed execution on some of his pitches."

But that pitch failed Fulmer failed him in the third inning. He gave up a single to Brett Phillips, a two-run homer to Whit Merrifield and a two-run shot to Salvador Perez — all on fastballs.

"Especially in that third inning, just kind of lost all command of everything," Fulmer said. "I feel like a threw a few nice sliders, a few good fastballs. Just kind of leaving everything up instead of down."

His slider plateaued a bit, missing on two pitches to Ryan O'Hearn and walking him. Gardenhire made the call to the bullpen for right-handed reliever Kyle Funkhouser with a 5-1 lead narrowed to 5-4.

Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer threw 47 pitches against the Kansas City Royals on July 27, 2020, in his first regular-season start since Sept. 15, 2018.

[ The coronavirus stole something special from Detroit Tigers fans: An Al Kaline tribute ]

While Fulmer's return wasn't the "Cinderella story" he hoped for, he was pleased in his ability to return from knee surgery and Tommy John surgery after missing all of the 2019 season.

But his consistency and command aren't fully back.

"Just fell apart," Fulmer said. "Just over-throwing, too amped up. I need to do a better job of that. Calming myself down and not trying to get too antsy, being quick to the plate. Command was off with the fastball, especially that third inning, couldn't throw anything arm side at all."

Regardless, it was a better outing than his last one, in which he gave up two home runs to the Cleveland Indians without recording an out in a mid-September game in 2018; Fulmer won't complain about Monday's start.

Just like each checkpoint in his rehab, it's another step in the right direction.

"Happy to be back out there," he said. "Hopefully can help this team have a better chance of winning next time out."

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