Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer knows he needs to be better.
But he hasn’t been, and he got an “awful feeling” walking off the mound after the third inning of the Tigers’ 10-5 win Friday against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. He gave up five runs on five hits and one walk.
Had it not been for the home-run heroics of Jonathan Schoop and Isaac Paredes in the fourth inning, the Tigers (10-14) likely would have surrendered to 10 consecutive defeats and 21 in a row against the Indians — both placed on Fulmer’s tab.
“I’ve got no excuses at this point,” Fulmer said postgame. “It’s tough and frustrating for me. … Positives are we won, snapped the streak finally. Offense had my back there, and the bullpen was phenomenal. Hats off to those guys.”
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The negatives, however, were overwhelming, partially because he is rummaging for success with his refined mechanics. He focuses on one pitch-type each game, sometimes inadvertently, and other pitches suffer. He is adjusting to his weight loss. He is figuring out how to put less stress on his knee and elbow, a product of two surgeries — including Tommy John surgery — that shut him down for the entire 2019 season.
A lot is being poured into every start. He feels dominant in weekly bullpen sessions and trusts his command, but remains unable to perform on game day. His own toughest critic, Fulmer is confident he will find success and feels healthy, so he recognizes the justification of his flaws must end.
“I truly believe the best is yet to come,” Fulmer said. “Last year was just such a long road for me, and this year, it’s gonna pay off. It’s just gonna take some time for me. … I feel like we’re close. We’re just a tick off somewhere, and I’m just trying to find where.
“Just try to put the team in the best position to win, and right now, I’m not doing that.”
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Against the Indians on Friday, Fulmer liked the movement on his sinker, a pitch he used 22 times but didn’t get a strike swinging with. His slider, which he used 11 times and got two whiffs, had “good tilt to it” even though he missed his mark on a couple — one hit Carlos Santana in the foot on a 2-2 count. He followed that at-bat by walking Franmil Reyes on four pitches.
There was a comebacker three batters later that ricocheted off Fulmer’s glove. Despite an athletic slide to pick it up, he couldn’t corral it with his throwing hand. The result was a wild throw to first base, which allowed his third of five runs to score with two outs.
He exited after the third inning with a season-high 63 pitches. Although he remains on a pitch limit, and likely will for the remainder of the season, he has grown increasingly frustrated with not being able to reach the fourth inning.
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“That sliding play was a little bit rough on him, and he got frustrated with that,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire. “Ultimately, he did alright. He hung in there and got through those innings. We wanted to get one more, but not with that pitch count. Wasn’t gonna happen.”
What makes Fulmer’s return difficult is he doesn’t know exactly what he’s searching for. Through four games, he has given up 12 runs in 11⅓ innings for a 9.53 ERA with 10 strikeouts compared to five walks.
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Fulmer acknowledges his rising confidence, but he is battling unexplainable shortcomings. This causes him to become more lost with every start in an exploration to find the perfect formula to get himself back to his 2016 AL Rookie of the Year and 2017 All-Star status.
He knows it will take time, maybe even into the 2021 season.
But at some point, time will begin to run out. That’s why he is choosing not to simply blame his troubles on past injuries anymore.
“I’m not gonna give up,” Fulmer said. “I’m gonna keep working, working really hard and just try to find something and kind of stick with it. It’s just frustrating. It’s tough on my part that I’m putting the team like this. And, luckily, they had my back tonight.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.