Fulmer’s usually reliable slider betrays him in loss

Detroit Tigers

CLEVELAND — The last time the Tigers closed out the first half of the season here, Michael Fulmer was an All-Star as a 24-year-old and a reigning AL Rookie of the Year. He went into the Midsummer Classic a winner with a Sunday night victory on national television at Progressive Field. The Tigers were on the verge of a roster upheaval, but Fulmer was a promising part of the future.

That was five years ago. As he sat at his locker Friday night and took in the Tigers’ 6-5 loss to the Guardians, he was his usual classy self, but in a vastly different position — the veteran anchor of the Tigers’ bullpen who suffered the loss in Cleveland’s seventh-inning comeback.

He wasn’t rocked for a big home run, or even a hard-hit ball. The three balls in play that sunk him averaged just under 77 miles per hour in exit velocity, just one of which topped a .050 expected batting average. But the leadoff walk to struggling ninth batter Myles Straw will dog him and possibly teams that could trade for him.

“As a pitcher, you want to tell yourself you can live with the doubles that bounce right in front of home plate and the soft singles. That’s just part of it,” Fulmer said. “But what you can’t live with is leadoff walks. They always come back to find a way to bite you in the butt. Just kind of a bad day to have a bad day, honestly. But I think I was just a little off with execution.”

These could be Fulmer’s final weeks with the Tigers. The 29-year-old is eligible for free agency at season’s end, and Detroit’s bullpen is the one area of the club with an abundance of young talent. The team’s best chance to add more at the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline is to deal from its relief surplus, Fulmer included. He was an All-Star candidate with some solid statistics. But his struggles Friday reflected how he has succeeded with different stuff this year.

When Fulmer moved to the bullpen last season, he was a power reliever, throwing four-seam fastballs and sinkers regularly at 95+ mph. Both pitches are down in velocity this season, averaging around 94 mph according to Statcast. But they’ve also been supplanted by a wipeout slider as a primary pitch.

Nearly two-thirds of Fulmer’s pitches this season have been sliders, according to Statcast.

Hitters were 8-for-70 off Fulmer’s slider entering this game, according to Statcast. On Friday, he threw 18 sliders in 23 pitches. He induced three swings and misses, including a strikeout of Amed Rosario for a critical first out in the seventh. But he also gave up both hits on it, hard luck and all.

“That’s my best pitch,” Fulmer said. “If I’m going to go down, I want go down with that pitch. I thought that if I located a little better, I think it would’ve gotten the job done, and it did to Rosario, all sliders.”

Fulmer finished off Rosario on a 2-2 slider off the plate. He had three hitters in 0-2 counts, all of whom reached base safely. Straw fouled off three consecutive sliders in the strike zone to fall into an 0-2 hole, but none of Fulmer’s next four pitches were close enough to induce a swing, putting the tying run on base.

It marked the fourth time he has walked the first batter he has faced in an outing this season, and the third to lead off an inning. Straw became the first of those to score.

Steven Kwan saw four sliders in the zone, the last of which he pounded into the ground. The ball took a high hop over first baseman Harold Castro for a double, putting runners at second and third with nobody out.

After Rosario’s strikeout and an intentional walk to José Ramírez, Fulmer induced Josh Naylor to chase a slider off the outside edge, much like Rosario, with a different result.

“The sacrifice fly was a ball, backdoor slider off the plate,” Fulmer said. “He just did a good job of staying with it and going out to left field to get the job done. Sometimes you have to tip your hat. But obviously the leadoff walk for me is not ideal.”

The go-ahead single to Andrés Giménez was an 0-2 slider, the right pitch in the wrong location.

“I tried to bury it and just overthrew it, missed my spot by a lot,” Fulmer said. “Even though it wasn’t the hardest-hit ball, he still got enough to put it out to left field. But it was not a good pitch.”

It was an inning where the Guardians benefited by looking for contact instead of a big swing.

“He’s a great pitcher and he has command of all his pitches,” Giménez said. “I was just trying to put the ball in play.”

It marked Fulmer’s second loss in three outings, but his defeat last Sunday in Chicago came from two unearned runs fueled by a Robbie Grossman two-out error. He gave up more than one earned run in an outing Friday for just the second time since May 12.

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