Cleveland — To his credit, as bad as he was feeling afterward, Michael Fulmer still enjoyed the win Friday night. He celebrated snapping the 20-game losing streak against the Indians and the nine-game season skid every bit as much as Isaac Paredes (go-ahead grand slam) did, as much as Jonathan Schoop (monster homer, four hits) did, as much as the any of the five relievers who combined for six scoreless innings after he departed.
He congratulated them all and thanked them for having his back.
“Truly a full-team win,” Fulmer said after the 10-5 win Friday night. “Once the starting pitching — specifically me — starts doing a little better and figures it out, it’s going to be fun to watch.”
But believe this: These are excruciating times for Fulmer. He’s thrilled, after knee and elbow surgeries forced him to the sidelines for 22 months, to be back taking the mound every five days. But it’s been agonizing, being limited to three innings, trying to work out the kinks after such a long layoff in real time against big-league hitters without so much as a single minor-league rehab start.
“I’ve got no excuses at this point,” he said. “It’s tough and frustrating for me. Kind of an awful feeling. I feel like I’m trying something new each time out. I just have to find something that works.”
Fulmer understands why his innings are being limited. It’s to safeguard his future. The Tigers want him to use his 12 starts this season to build a base, physically, to take into 2021 where he can resume his full-time spot in the rotation.
But going into a game with that type of restriction leaves little margin for error. You have no time to make adjustments. If you don’t have a feel for a pitch out of the gate, you don’t have time to figure it out on the fly. It changes the way you approach hitters, changes how you distribute your pitches, etc.
Fulmer’s two-seam fastball was as lively as it’s been this season Friday. He had a good plan against the Indians’ five left-handed hitters — two-seamer moving away and then busting the back-foot slider down and in.
But his command was off. He hit Carlos Santana in the foot with a 2-2 slider to start the three-run second inning — one run scoring on a scorched ground ball past Niko Goodrum (110 mph exit velocity) and another on a come-backer that Fulmer didn’t field cleanly, attempting a sliding recovery that resulted in an errant throw to first.
“I did a lot of (the damage) to myself,” Fulmer said. “Hitting Santana in the foot with two strikes, walking (Franmil) Reyes, not being able to field a come-backer. And then, down 2-0, just laying a four-seamer in to Reyes.”
That happened with two outs and a man on in the third. With the right-handed hitting Reyes up and lefty Tyler Naquin (he of the 110-mph scorched RBI double) on deck, knowing he was nearing the end of his outing, Fulmer didn’t want to walk Reyes. He challenged him and lost.
Without that three-inning cap looming, Fulmer might have tried to work against Reyes’ aggressiveness and thrown a secondary pitch there.
“It kills me to try and go out there every fifth day and try to be perfect,” he said. “But I’m not giving up. I’ve been working hard. I truly believe the best is yet to come. Last year was such a long road, such a long year for me — it’s going to pay off. It’s just going to take some time for me.
“This is just me being my own worst critic. I feel like we’re close. Just a tick off somewhere. Just trying to find out where.”
His bullpen sessions between starts remain encouraging, to both him and pitching coach Rick Anderson.
“I’ve been feeling very confident in my bullpens,” he said. “Everything is down. The command is good. I just can’t seem to take it into the games right now. … It’s very frustrating to be putting out the results I’ve been doing personally. I just try to put the team in the best position to win and right now I’m not doing that.
“But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep working and trying to find something and then stick with it.”