Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Michael Fulmer was in a groove on Aug. 14, 2016, against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park.
Brad Ausmus, the manager at the time, didn’t think twice about pulling him after the eighth inning. Fulmer confirmed his ninth-inning plan with Justin Verlander and, lo and behold, he became the first Tigers rookie to throw a complete-game shutout since Verlander in 2006.
His 112-pitch masterpiece put the Tigers five games back of the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central, and 1½ out of the second and final wild card spot. They missed the playoffs on the final day of the season.
But it was a monumental moment in Fulmer’s career.
Possibly the peak.
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“That was the only year that I really had any playoff push experience,” Fulmer said Tuesday. “But I think right now, we’re just taking it one game at a time. We’re not having any added pressure put on us. We know there’s still a long way to go in the season, and everybody’s just doing their job right now.”
Four years later, the Tigers (17-16) are back in a race for the postseason, which was expanded to 16 teams because of the shortened 60-game season. A lot has changed since Fulmer’s August 2016 outing in Arlington, Texas, but he continues to see improvements in his quest to rebuild his career.
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He had elbow surgery for ulnar nerve transposition in September 2017. He underwent right knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in September 2018. And in March 2019, he decided to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. With his rehabilitation came a noticeable weight loss and new mechanics.
Fulmer likely won’t throw 112 pitches in a single game anytime soon. He hasn’t pitched into the fourth inning in any of his six starts this season because of inefficiencies and a pitch limit as the organization uses the coronavirus-altered year to ease him back. He has a 7.27 ERA and struck out at least six batters Tuesday for the first time since July 8, 2018, also against the Rangers.
Amid his second-career postseason race, he is not the same pitcher.
“Yeah, I battle internally with it,” Fulmer said. “I’ve had talks with Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire) about going more than three innings, and he say he thinks I’m ready. But on my part, I’ve got to start getting more efficient outs. I’m just a little too inconsistent.
“I’m happy with where my stuff is. I just wish I could be a little more consistent, and it’s going to come with time.”
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He displayed the inconsistencies in his 65-pitch, three-inning outing Tuesday in a 12-1 victory Tuesday over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. He fell behind, 3-0, to Justin Smoak with two runners on and one out in the first inning, yet he came back with three consecutive strikes to send him down swinging. The next batter, Avisail Garcia, jumped ahead, 2-0, before three of Fulmer’s next four pitches went for strikes, producing a swinging strikeout with an 87.7 mph slider to end the inning unscathed.
With two runners on and two outs in the third, Fulmer repeated his earlier battle with Smoak: three straight balls, three straight strikes. The result: a strikeout swinging on a 91.8 mph sinker to end the inning.
“Tonight was a lot better than the previous starts,” Fulmer said. “Just actually hitting my spots when I needed to. The good pitches are there.”
He trotted off the mound having allowed three hits and two walks with six strikeouts in three scoreless innings. He used all five of his pitches in pursuit of becoming less predictable.
“He pitched through something early and then, in the last inning, his pitch count got up, but he got through it,” Gardenhire said. “That’s really important. He had great stuff tonight. … He misfired a little bit, and the pitch count went up, but it’s another step in the right direction. He’s finding velo, his breaking ball, at times, is better. That’s going to be…