How Detroit Tigers reliever Michael Fulmer is approaching his return from injury

Detroit Free Press

Michael Fulmer just wants to help the Detroit Tigers win games.

But the injuries keep holding him back.

“Stuff like this just keeps happening,” Fulmer said Tuesday. “It’s frustrating. It really is. It sucks on my end just as much, trust me. I think this one is more getting used to the bullpen role, just like the first one was with the inflammation of my shoulder.”

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The first injury Fulmer has dealt with goes back to June 6, when he was placed on the 10-day injured list with a right shoulder strain. He returned for five games and landed back on the injured list June 27 with a right cervical spine strain.

Finally, Fulmer is healthy again.

The Tigers activated him Tuesday before facing the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. He pitched a scoreless fifth inning, allowing one hit with one strikeout. The plan is to ease him back into his high-leverage workload. He might not pitch back-to-back games or multiple innings right away.

“It’s all mechanical,” Fulmer said. “We worked on it the last month, trying to do a few things to keep calm while not losing stuff. I think we’ve done a good job.”

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Fulmer blames his neck injury — the right cervical spine strain — on “getting carried away about the adrenaline” in his bullpen role and “overthrowing” to finish games. It’s easy to forget he is still adjusting to his life as a reliever, after starting the first 85 games of his career from 2016-20. (He underwent knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John surgery in 2019.)

“It’s just me being a competitor and trying to go out and give everything I have,” Fulmer said. “I’m still getting used to this bullpen role. I love it. I can’t say enough about it. But trying to do it healthy is another aspect that we’re going to try to get ahold of.”

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By learning to “keep calm” amid the adrenaline, Fulmer hopes fresh mechanics will help him avoid unnecessary neck movement. He showed a glimpse of what he can do in Triple-A Toledo, pitching Thursday and Sunday in rehab assignment outings.

His fastball reached 98 mph, but he struggled at times with his command.

In the two games, Fulmer fired two scoreless innings with two strikeouts. He gave up one hit and two walks against Triple-A Indianapolis, a minor-league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The right-hander combined to throw 12 of 26 pitches for strikes.

“We’re still working on a few things,” Fulmer said. “Everything feels good. That’s all that matters right now. I’m a big figure-it-out guy. If I don’t have it in a bullpen or a rehab appearance, we’ll put in the work needed to figure it out eventually. I’m happy with where I’m at and happy with the stuff. A little anxious with the fastballs up, but once I got those out of the way, I dialed it back in to salvage my two appearances.”

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This season, Fulmer has a 4.05 ERA, 11 walks and 42 strikeouts over 40 innings in 25 games (four starts). As a reliever, he boasts a 3.62 ERA, six walks and 35 strikeouts across 27⅓ of his 40 innings.

Fulmer is an important piece to the bullpen, alongside left-hander Gregory Soto, right-hander Jose Cisnero, righty Kyle Funkhouser and righty Joe Jimenez. He has six saves in 2021, the second-most on the team behind Soto’s 11 saves.

“My mentality right now is the same role I had when I left, hopefully the back-end guy,” Fulmer said. “I just want to pitch, whether that’s a couple innings in middle relief, long relief, starting, closing out games, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I’m healthy and helping everybody out.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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