Detroit — The Tigers scored in funky and fluky ways, beating the Royals with a balk and a walk-off home run by the backup catcher. That’s the short story. The long tale is, there’s nothing funky or fluky about the young guy who keeps giving them their best chance.
Michael Fulmer is a rookie who didn’t even make the team out of spring training, so it’s hard to suggest he’s saving the Tigers season. Except it sure looks like he’s saving the Tigers season, in new and amazing ways.
The 23-year-old right-hander got into rare early trouble Sunday but escaped with power and poise, and kept it close before the Tigers rallied for a 4-2 victory. Detroit won its first series after the All-Star break, a desperately needed boost in front of big home crowds. It’s crucial for the Tigers to get hot quickly, before the August 1 trade deadline, and the way their rotation is decimated, they have to win almost every time Fulmer or Justin Verlander pitches.
In the absence of injured Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris, and with the ugly travails of Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, we’re reminded of the old saying — “Fulmer and JV, then turn off the TV.” (Sincere apologies to baseball purists and historians).
That’s not the formula to make the playoffs, but it might be enough to buy the Tigers time to figure out if they have a shot at the playoffs. Verlander was stellar in the opener against the Royals Friday night, striking out 10, and Fulmer was even better, keeping the Tigers (48-44) in second place, 6.5 games behind the Indians.
The Tigers borrowed the defending champs’ blueprint, even if only for a weekend. To stay in contention, you need players to make the transition from youthful promise to stalwarts, or even stars. That’s Fulmer and Nick Castellanos and Cameron Maybin, who have been tremendous. The Tigers can’t always count on Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who are struggling lately with runners in scoring position.
You also need unexpected fill-in help, and that was Tyler Collins, who had a big home run in the opener, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who clubbed the two-run winner Sunday. You need good fortune, such as the balk by Royals starter Yordano Ventura that gave the Tigers their first run, and the wild pitch that tied it, 2-2. You need a dependable bullpen back-end, and Francisco Rodriguez has been superb. More than anything, you need arms strong enough to last long enough to keep the game close.
Fulmer has exceeded his already-high billing as the prized piece acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes at last year’s trade deadline. He was a touted prospect who needed to develop a third pitch, and somehow found a change-up quickly this season to complement his fastball and slider.
Poise makes the pitcher
How dominant has Fulmer been? By giving up a mere two earned runs Sunday, one incredible streak ended — he had allowed one run or fewer in his last nine starts, the second-longest such run in franchise history, behind only Doug Fister.
Fulmer didn’t get the decision because he left after a career-high eight innings, but he’s 9-2 with a 2.13 ERA and is a leading AL Rookie of the Year candidate. He doesn’t pitch like a guy who needs monitoring, but the Tigers understandably will be cautious with their young phenom, which is a fair label now. At 99 innings this season (including 15 at Toledo), Fulmer is shy of a vague limit, somewhere around 160 innings.
“I think it’s remarkable a young pitcher like this is able to keep his pitch count down,” Brad Ausmus said. “Usually that’s a problem for a young power pitcher. … What he has is poise. The situation doesn’t rattle him. I don’t know if it’s kind of built into his DNA, but he doesn’t change, his body language doesn’t change. It doesn’t seem like his heart rate changes, whether the bases are loaded or nobody’s on.”
We saw exactly that in the third inning, when it appeared the Royals would pull away. Already up 2-0, they had runners on first and third, one out. Fulmer was trying to beat them with his heat — 95-97 mph — and he was missing. But he adjusted and struck out Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon, and that was it.
Fulmer allowed only two hits over the next five innings and the Tigers caught up. They probably were giddy they had a chance without one of those 5-0 holes they often face with others on the mound. Of all the feisty qualities Fulmer has shown, shutting down the Royals after the third inning was as impressive as anything.
His expression rarely varies. It’s almost as if his bulky beard helps obscure whatever small, subtle emotion there is.
“I’ve worked on it a lot the last couple years, breathing and visualizing, stuff like that,” Fulmer said. “I try not to get over-amped in those situations, just take a deep breath and look at what you need to get done.”
He’s getting it done like few young pitchers ever do, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning. It’s hard to imagine how dire it would be for the Tigers without Fulmer, although we get sobering glimpses when someone other than him or Verlander pitches.
The last-place Twins are next in town for a three-game series, and it looks like a prime chance for the Tigers to gain ground. To keep climbing, they’ll need even more from old reliables and new revelations.