For three games at Minute Maid Park, the Detroit Tigers looked like a different team — and a much better team. After getting swept by Cleveland and falling into a four-game losing streak, manager AJ Hinch asked his players to respond.
They most definitely got his message.
The Tigers (6-6) swept the Houston Astros on Wednesday with a 6-4 win. Detroit scored three runs each in the second and fourth innings and got five innings from right-hander Michael Fulmer.
During the three-game series, the Tigers scored 20 runs on 31 hits and 13 walks. They went 31-for-109 (.284) at the plate. The starting pitchers combined to give up three earned runs in 18⅔ innings for a 1.45 ERA.
ALWAYS LEARNING: Why Akil Baddoo rebounding from ’embarrassing’ play bodes well for future
MAN ON MISSON: How one tweak from pitching coach helped Casey Mize dominate
The Tigers scored at least six runs six-plus runs in three consecutive road games for the first time since Sept. 18-22, 2016, against Cleveland at Progressive Field.
Outfielder Nomar Mazara departed from Wednesday’s game in the fourth inning with a left abdominal strain. Before the game, the Astros placed five played on the COVID-related injured list: designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, third baseman Alex Bregman, second baseman Jose Altuve, catcher Martin Maldonado and infielder Robel Garcia.
Left-hander Daniel Norris gave up a run in the sixth inning, allowed the Astros to cut the Tigers’ lead to three, but righty Buck Farmer got the final two outs without further damage. Alex Lange and Gregory Soto combined for two scoreless innings. Jose Cisnero pitched the ninth but loaded the bases with no outs. Bryan Garcia entered, got two outs, walked in a run and then struck out Kyle Tucker looking to end the game.
After sweeping the Astros, the Tigers begin a four-game series against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum. Left-hander Tarik Skubal starts Thursday, opposed by lefty Sean Manaea.
Fulmer is back
For the first time since June 14, 2018, Fulmer earned a win in a baseball game. His journey is headlined by two injuries — forcing him to undergo knee surgery and Tommy John surgery — and a long road back to discovering his mid-90s velocity and wipeout slider.
The 28-year-old made his first start in the 2021 season, after pitching out of the bullpen for his three appearances, and was strong through five innings. He retired the first 11 Astros he faced before Michael Brantley’s fourth-inning single with two outs.
Fulmer allowed a two-run homer to Jason Castro with two outs in the fifth inning, but he struck out Myles Straw to conclude his performance.
NOTEBOOK: Willi Castro battling slump; Miguel Cabrera in ‘great spirits’
FIVE MEN OUT: Astros put 5 players on IL for COVID protocols; Tigers not concerned
Using 78 pitches, of which 49 went for strikes, Fulmer completed five innings. Last season, he was limited to three innings as a starter while going through the rehabilitation process at the major-league level. He gave up two runs on three hits and one walk, with two strikeouts.
Fulmer used 28 sliders, 20 sinkers, 15 four-seam fastballs, 12 changeups and three curveballs. He got nine swings-and-misses with four sliders, two sinkers, one four-seamer and two changeups. Also, he earned 13 called strikes.
The two most important aspects of Fulmer’s outing, however, were his ability to fill up the strike zone and rediscover his fastball velocity, resembling what he displayed as the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year and 2017 All-Star.
Fulmer’s four-seam fastball averaged 95.9 mph, and his sinker averaged 95.4 mph. He maxed out at 97.4 mph in the first inning. His slider averaged 89.8 mph.
And Fulmer didn’t get his first strikeout until the fourth inning. He picked up another in the fifth, but he got 11 of his 15 outs on ground balls.
Daily dose of Baddoo
Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo made his third consecutive start in center field and, once again, delivered in the batter’s box. After Renato Nunez and Jonathan Schoop reached base with a hit-by-pitch and a walk, respectively, Baddoo got his first chance to face Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.
He roped a double to the left-field corner, scoring Nunez, to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
With Baddoo’s second-inning RBI, he became the second player in franchise history to drive in at least one run in seven of his first nine career games. The other was Dale Alexander in 1929.
Baddoo went 1-for-4 in the third game. He finished the series 5-for-11 (.455) with two homers and owns a .370 batting average through nine games this season.
After Baddoo’s double, the Tigers tacked on two more runs in the second inning on a groundout from Niko Goodrum — who played an excellent defensive game at shortstop — and a single from Robbie Grossman for a 3-0 lead.
McCullers was chased with two outs in the fourth inning. He gave up six runs on four hits and three walks, with three strikeouts. Detroit made him use 87 pitches, and he only managed 46 strikes.
Grossman snaps skid
Entering with a 0-for-12 streak, Grossman made his presence felt early on a seventh-pitch knuckle curveball from McCullers, which the veteran slapped for a double.
Grossman chipped in an RBI-single in the second. He drew a hit-by-pitch in the fourth and came around to score on a single from Wilson Ramos for a 6-0 edge. (One batter before, Jeimer Candelario drove in Goodrum with a single.)
ADD SOME POP: As Tigers ‘need threats’ on offense, slugger Renato Nunez could be solution
AND MORE POP: Catcher Wilson Ramos leads MLB in home runs: ‘Dream come true’
In part, Grossman — reaching base three times — was the catalyst for the team’s success. While they launched home runs through the first two games of the series, the Tigers got the job done in the finale with walks, singles and doubles.
Candelario’s two singles and one double gave him his fifth multi-hit performance this season. He logged at least two hits in all three games against the Astros.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.