CHICAGO — In Thursday’s 2-1 win, Detroit Tigers closer Gregory Soto needed support from his teammates and coaches. In Friday’s 7-5 win, reliever Michael Fulmer needed to find his slider.
Both pitchers executed with the game on the line.
The efforts of Soto, a left-hander, and Fulmer, a right-hander, helped the Tigers to consecutive victories against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field, extending their streak to six.
“Everything we do doesn’t matter until you get to the end of the game,” catcher Eric Haase said. “Especially against this lineup, got you to bury them. It’s easier said than done. No lead is safe. To have guys like Fulmer and Soto come in and close the door has been huge for us.”
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After Fulmer earned the save in Friday’s win, manager A.J. Hinch pulled Soto — the Tigers’ closer — into his office for a conversation. Typically, Soto gets all the save situations and is trusted to pitch back-to-back games.
But Fulmer hadn’t pitched since Wednesday, plus the White Sox are loaded with elite right-handed hitters in the middle of the lineup and the Tigers expect Soto to close out Saturday’s game.
“Hey, don’t take it personal,” Hinch told Soto. “I had Michael up (in the bullpen) a couple nights in a row.”
“No, we won,” Soto responded. “It’s awesome.”
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Detroit’s bullpen — which also includes high-leverage relievers Andrew Chafin, Alex Lange and Joe Jiménez — ranks third in MLB with a 3.04 ERA entering Saturday, trailing only the Houston Astros (2.62) and New York Yankees (2.62).
“These guys love pitching at end of games, but they also love pitching around each other,” Hinch said. “That is probably the best thing for me, the quality that comes with the acceptance of whenever I pitch them.”
‘He’s been there, many of times’
On Thursday, Soto entered the ninth inning to protect a 2-0 lead.
He got the first out quickly, then ran into trouble. Tim Anderson laced a single into left field, AJ Pollock walked on four pitches and Luis Robert doubled on a ground ball past diving first baseman Spencer Torkelson.
“I didn’t focus on what happened,” Soto said. “I knew they had a runner on third, so I focused on getting the next guy out.”
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Robert’s double scored Anderson for Chicago’s first run and put two runners in scoring position with one out for the ever-dangerous Jose Abreu. The 2020 American League MVP is hitting .292 with 10 home runs in 80 games this season, but he hasn’t been intentionally walked since 2021.
The Tigers briefly considered walking Abreu.
Hinch made the final decision.
A mound visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter encouraged Soto to attack. Catcher Tucker Barnhart preached the same message. All the infielders, led by shortstop Javier Báez, came in for the conversation.
“I got a lot of support from my teammates, the guys playing behind me,” Soto said. “They told me I got this, that I can do it. I know I have been underperforming sometimes, but they gave me their support. I had to give them back what they deserved, and that was to get an out and win.”
An intentional walk to load the bases, while increasing the odds of a double play, was too risky, considering Soto can sometimes be a little wild and has an 11.9% walk rate.
“He’s been there, many of times,” Barnhart said. “It’s not his first rodeo out there in that situation. We trust Greg in every ninth inning. We will continue to trust Greg. It was a grinder of a game, and I’m glad we pulled it out.”
Soto struck out Abreu swinging on three pitches, the last pitch an extremely elevated 98.1 mph four-seam fastball. With two outs, Soto went back to the top of the strike zone to get ahead 0-1 in the count to Eloy Jimenez.
On the next pitch, Jimenez grounded out to end the game.
“Very few guys can pull it together the way he did,” Hinch said.
This season, Soto has converted 17 of 19 save chances. He also has a 2.70 ERA with 15 walks and 31 strikeouts over 30 innings. The 27-year-old was the Tigers’ All-Star representative last season.
‘I found the adjustment’
On Friday, Fulmer entered in the ninth inning to protect a 7-5 lead.
Much like Soto’s outing, Fulmer recorded the first out before the next two batters reached safely: Anderson (hit-by-pitch) and Pollock (single).
“I know (Anderson) was looking away, for a slider probably,” Fulmer said, “so I wanted to make sure we got the ball in on him, hopefully for a groundout. Obviously, I didn’t mean to go that far in (with the two-seamer). And then Pollock hits a slider that was hanging up there. I tried to get it down, but I was throwing through it almost, though the break.”
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The White Sox had runners on the corners.
Fulmer needed a strikeout.
One problem: He didn’t have the feel for his slider. That’s been his top pitch this season, with opponents hitting just .119 when Fulmer goes to his marquee weapon. He has thrown his slider 63.3% of the time, and it has produced a 35.3% swing-and-miss rate.
Suddenly, Fulmer locked in his slider.
“I found the adjustment, whatever it was,” Fulmer said.
He got a swing-and-miss on a first-pitch slider to Robert, another dangerous hitter, to get ahead in the count. Haase liked what he saw, so he called for another slider.
Fulmer ended up throwing throw four straight, and Robert struck out swinging on Fulmer’s best pitch of his outing. A 90.2 mph slider darted down and away; Robert whiffed for the second out.
Then, Fulmer had to get through Abreu.
“Nobody in the dugout wants to see Jose Abreu up at the end of the game,” Hinch said. “But we got him out.”
He flipped him a first-pitch slider but missed outside the strike zone. Behind 1-0 in the count, Fulmer amped up the speed with a 96 mph two-seam fastball. Abreu made solid contract, but he flied out to the right-field corner to end the game.
In 32 games, Fulmer has a 1.97 ERA with 15 walks and 32 strikeouts across 32 innings, as well as two saves in four opportunities. His 0.7 fWAR is tied with Chafin and Lange for the best in the bullpen.
Ramón Santiago shaves head
After Friday’s win, third base coach Ramón Santiago got his head shaved in the clubhouse. Long before the Tigers’ winning streak, the team talked about needing to string together a bunch of wins in a row.
“He threw the number six out there,” Hinch said.
Soto operated the hair clipper for the postgame cut.
“The first thing they wanted to do last night was shave his head,” Hinch said. “We’ll see if that trend continues. That next question about when I’m going to do it, we’re going to need a lot more.”
Is there a number for Hinch to shave his head?
“There’s always a number,” Hinch said. “We’re not quite there yet.”
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