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Regardless of who gets the ball, Tigers need starting pitchers to go deeper in games

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – The only certainty regarding the Tigers' starting rotation, at least before the game Sunday, was that Matthew Boyd would start Monday in Chicago and Spencer Turnbull would go in the series finale Thursday.

In between? Well, stay tuned. Daniel Norris, conceivably, could get the ball one of those days. Casey Mize, conceivably, could be recalled from Toledo and make his big-league debut one of those days. The Tigers aren’t making any announcements on that yet.

Matthew Boyd

But regardless of who gets called, the Tigers desperately need them to get deeper into games. Sunday marked the sixth straight game in which the starting pitcher didn’t finish five innings – this one, though, was by design since Michael Fulmer is being limited to three innings as he comes back from Tommy John surgery.

But in 19 starts, Tigers starters have finished six innings twice – both times it was Turnbull who did the trick.

“It’s got to fall upon our starters to where we don’t have to use these (relievers) so much,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Once our starters can get on a little bit of roll here and start getting us into the second half of games, we’ll be able to use those guys the right way.

“We’ve seen it. We can dominate the last few innings. We have multiple guys who can go out in late innings and get big outs.”

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Especially with Buck Farmer due to come off the injured list on Wednesday. The Tigers' late-inning arsenal of Farmer, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Joe Jimenez has been strong. But too often lately Gardenhire has had to go to his bullpen in fourth or fifth inning.

In the last five games before Sunday, Tigers relievers have thrown 25.2 innings.

“We have a lot of people out there (in the bullpen) but you try to set up end-of-game situations if we can get there,” Gardenhire said. “But right now we are just trying to get through these ballgames. We’ve been going to pen after five innings and that’s really been the hard part.

“You can’t have too many of those games where you are using five and six guys out of the pen. We need to get the starters rolling, then we can get it figured out and not have to kill anybody.”

Fulmer lasted 2.2 innings on Sunday, allowing three runs on a pair of home runs (Franmil Reyes and Francisco Lindor). 

"It's tough to go out there knowing I'm on a pitch limit," he said. "It feels like I have to be perfect. And I wasn't today."

Fulmer said all the starters were frustrated about how things have gone to this point.

"It sucks," he said. "We know we can perform better. We know we should perform better. And we know we have to perform better. It starts with me. I feel like I'm being that crutch on the rotation and the crutch on the bullpen because of my pitch limit.

"I can only feel as good as I can feel and I feel great. That's the positive. As the season goes on, I hope I can continue to build up, but that's Gardy's call."

Gardenhire made some pointed comments about Boyd before the game, too. Boyd has not gone beyond five innings this season.

“I think pitching can be pretty simple or it can be really hard,” he said. “You can let your mind screw things up, or you can trust your catcher. Have a game plan in place beforehand and just follow it. That’s what Matty needs to do.”

Casey Mize

Gardenhire believes part of Boyd’s issues have been overthinking between pitches, which slows his pace considerably and impacts his consistency.

“He’s out there trying to strike guys out,” Gardenhire said. “We know he goes for the strikeout. We know he’s that kind of pitcher. But those early outs will get you deeper in the game and we desperately need that from our starters right now.”

Of course, the first order of business is to figure out who the five starters are. Tyler Alexander and Norris both made one start before they were sent back to the bullpen.

“We just brought (Alexander) in the office, sat him down and told him we’re going to put him back in the bullpen for now,” Gardenhire said. “He’s just happy to be here and that’s what he said. He wants to start, but he will do whatever we need and that’s what you want.”

Gardenhire also reiterated that Fulmer would not be extended beyond three innings any time soon.

“We’re going to keep it to three innings,” he said. “He missed two years of baseball and we’re not going to push the issue. He had surgery on his arm and (knee). The goal is to get him through the whole year pitching.

So, with Jordan Zimmermann, Dario Agrazal and Ivan Nova are on the injured list, and Fulmer set as an opener – the Tigers’ rotation is down to two and a half starters. The question becomes, if not Mize now, then when?

On deck: White Sox

Series: Four-game series at Guaranteed Rate Field

First pitch: Monday-Wednesday – 8:10 p.m.; Thursday – 2:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Monday-Thursday – FSD/97.1 FM

Probables: Monday – LHP Matthew Boyd (0-2, 10.24) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (0-1, 6.61); Tuesday – TBA vs. RHP Dylan Cease (3-1, 3.16); Wednesday – TBA vs. TBA; Thursday – RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-1, 2.78) vs. RHP Lucas Giolito (1-2, 4.88).

Boyd, Tigers: This is his worst stretch since 2016, as the 10.24 ERA would attest. And he’s trying to well in a ballpark that has not been friendly to him over the years. This will be his 10th start on the south side of Chicago, he’s 1-6 with a 6.14 in the previous nine.

Gonzalez, White Sox: The Tigers had six hits off him at Comerica Park last week, but the only damage they did in 4.2 innings was a two-run home run by Austin Romine.