Henning: Fulmer's innings remain thorny issue

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — Texts had been sent to the “40 or 50” friends and clan who had driven long stretches along hot pavement, from Oklahoma City to Arlington, aching to see sudden celebrity Michael Fulmer pitch a big-league game.

Please don’t expect me to visit during my pregame bullpen session, Fulmer had said in his blanket text to the Oklahoma City caravan. It’s not that I don’t love y’all. But I’ve got serious work there.

Fulmer was sweating more heavily trying to be nice to everyone than he perspired in Texas’ heat and humidity Sunday as he and the Tigers shut out the Rangers, 7-0, at Globe Life Park. They did it mostly behind a four-hit, complete game gem thrown by a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who looks as if he’s cruising to an American League Rookie of The Year trophy.

It’s now the Tigers’ turn to sweat.

Fulmer has pitched 126⅓ innings in 2016, an inning and two-thirds more baseball than he threw in all of 2015. The Tigers are on record about pitch counts and workloads. They prefer a young pitcher throw no more than 25 percent — 30 percent, maximum — more innings than were tossed the previous year.

“He’s making it exceedingly difficult for us to keep his innings down,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team inside of 24 hours popped the Rangers in consecutive shutouts.

Asked if the thorny question of keeping a rookie in a rotation — without wrecking his arm — would “resolve itself” in coming days and weeks, Ausmus acknowledged this is a topic for which the Tigers have no easy answer.

“If he keeps going nine, it’s not going to resolve itself,” Ausmus said, wryly, and with absolute accuracy.

Respite in order

Ausmus knows the simple answer isn’t that simple. Fulmer might be built like a Montana grizzly at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he works so economically — 112 pitches for nine innings Sunday — the Tigers could justify keeping him on a spaced-out routine with an occasional missed turn and allow him the seven or eight starts he otherwise figures to get.

But if a team buys into popular science — and into their own record the past decade for not burning up young pitchers — the Tigers won’t invite abuse of a talent as extraordinary as Fulmer.

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Ausmus said Sunday he and pitching coach Rich Dubee, in tandem with the front office, will look at Detroit’s remaining schedule and determine where Fulmer can get an extra day of vacation. Or be excused from a start.

“We might have to do it more than once,” he said, speaking of a missed rotation turn.

Fulmer, of course, is ready to don sword and shield and do battle. Any time.

“All I know is I feel great,” he said, post-shower, while still trying to cool a body that had dealt with Sunday’s steam bath. “I could feel this good at 200 innings.

“I hope I keep getting my five days (turns).”

That’s courageous, committed sentiment and no doubt honest testimony from Fulmer. But, at least privately, he is as interested in preserving full health and longevity as the Tigers.

He couldn’t say much about an innings cap Sunday — and artfully didn’t when asked — but it remains a huge issue for a team that, of course, has now won consecutive games after losing five straight and sits at 63-54 and with a shot at October’s playoffs.

Armed with history

A teammate who has been through similar times and discussions stood a few lockers from Fulmer as the team slipped into its travel-day suits and ties ahead of a charter flight home to Detroit.

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Justin Verlander was asked how he felt about the subject of young pitchers, care for their arms, and teams that need sterling pitching to crack the post-season.

Verlander is as torn by the topic as any of the Tigers players or brass.

Fulmer “needs to be honest with them” about his arm’s status and his own energy level, Verlander said.

As for scrupulously guarding Fulmer’s pitch counts and innings odometer, Verlander is diplomatic but has something of a different view. He pitched 186 innings in his rookie year, 2006. He had pitched 130 innings in 2005, his first full season of professional ball. It was an increase of nearly 43 percent, not counting the 2006 post-season.

“I’ve told you a million times,” Verlander said, “I’m old school.”

In a nod to his employers, he added, delicately: “It’s also not my call.”

But it will be someone’s. And soon.

Fulmer is now the league’s earned-run leader (starters, minimum innings achieved) at 2.25. He is 10-3.

“Really, he doesn’t have very stressful innings,” Ausmus said, and in his voice you could hear the hope of a manager, speaking for his team, as they try and make math, as well as science, work in the interests of a pitcher and his playoff-dreaming cohorts.