Fulmer ‘happy’ to do his late-inning job

Detroit Tigers

When Fulmer was a rookie five years ago, his success made it difficult for then-manager Brad Ausmus to watch his workload in the middle of a playoff chase. Then came a hot August Sunday afternoon in Texas, when he shut down the Rangers on four singles with nine strikeouts in front of family and friends. He was 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA, and had a statement win in his case for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

“This is the first of hopefully many more to come in my career,” he said that day. “But then again, it’s still a ‘W’ for the Tigers, and that’s more important than personal achievements.”

Fulmer’s career has taken twists and turns, and he hasn’t gone nine innings in a game since. But as he cranked up fastballs against the Royals on Friday night, topping out with a 99.9 mph heater to Nicky Lopez on the way to his fourth save this month, it was clear that he still loves pitching the ninth.

“Not quite 100, though,” manager A.J. Hinch teased about his fastball. “We don’t round up.”

“That was kind of a surprise,” Fulmer admitted. “I think it was just one of those things. I was amped up.”

That velocity is a massive step for Fulmer. He endured Tommy John surgery, a lengthy rehab and a demoralizing 2020 season of short starts to get his fastball back.

I think just the way everything feels is the biggest story here,” he said on Saturday. “I feel great and I’m excited that I’m able to help the team. And A.J., I appreciate his trust in me to go to me whenever he needs to, and I’m looking to keep it rolling.”

Hinch has some history transitioning starters to late-game relievers. As Astros manager, he moved struggling second-year starter Joe Musgrove into the bullpen midway through 2017 and made him a late-inning asset, including a couple September saves after the Astros had clinched the AL West title. He eventually pitched one of the most important innings in the team’s title run, a scoreless 10th to get a win in Game 5 of the World Series.

“Those are good comparisons,” Hinch said, “because they’re both A-plus makeup guys who will do anything to help their brothers in the clubhouse. Joe, coming up, was obviously happy to be in the big leagues, happy to be a contributor. [He] had always been a starter and then took to the late-inning role as hungry as any pitcher that I’ve ever been around.

“Fast forward to now Michael Fulmer, who’s more established but still has that internal makeup and willingness to do whatever it takes. He said that from the very beginning.”

When Hinch and Fulmer talked about a bullpen role in Spring Training, the idea was a longer role, pitching two or three innings at a time. The idea was to get him to throw with more effort from his first pitch instead of pacing himself. But along that path, Hinch noticed something else.

“The more I saw him in the bullpen, the more I’ve seen him really enjoy the adrenaline part of the back of the bullpen, and then perform,” Hinch said. “And that ultimately is the deciding factor.”

Fulmer entered Saturday tied with Gregory Soto for the team lead in saves. They’ve essentially become a late-inning duo. Fulmer followed Soto for the save on Monday in Seattle before Soto finished out Wednesday’s game and the series sweep. Both made it to the Majors as starters, though Soto’s rotation stint was short.

The new job has taught Fulmer about preparation and routine, which has been critical in his transition to essentially working every other day. He also has learned about pitching effectively and with conviction when he doesn’t feel his most effective.

Those are lessons that could help him back in the rotation. Yes, he’d still ultimately like to start again. But he also looks at their five starters now and knows his best chance to contribute now is where he’s at. So he’s going to enjoy it.

“It’s the adrenaline. There’s nothing like coming out in the late innings and being able to hold a lead or hold a tie,” Fulmer said. “That’s really something fun to do, and I’ve never really had the luxury to experience before. But I’m just happy to be able to go out and do a job.”

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