Tigers’ Fulmer takes another step forward in victory

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Washington — If you are a fan of good old country hardball, and why wouldn’t you be, you had to love the first-inning confrontation between Tigers rookie right-hander Michael Fulmer and Nationals slugger Bryce Harper on Tuesday night.

Teams have been pitching around and intentionally walking Harper all season, but Fulmer, just the third pitcher Harper has ever faced who is younger than he is, attacked him.

“I had to,” he said. “If he beats me there, it’s just 1-0.”

Fulmer started him off with a flat slider — fortunately it was out of the strike zone and Harper took it. From there, Fulmer made up his mind to bring the heat. The velocity on the next four pitches — 96, 95, 96 and 96. At that point the count was 2-2 and Harper had fouled off the last two.

The next, and last, pitch was at 97 mph and it painted the outside corner of the plate at the knees. Harper was frozen. Called strike three.

“He’s not afraid when he’s on the mound, I will tell you what,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Not for a guy with just three big-league starts under his belt.”

It was just Fulmer’s sixth start above the Double-A level and his second big-league win. He went five innings, allowing three runs, seven hits with six strikeouts.

“He hasn’t disappointed,” Ausmus said. “At some point we’re going to have to take the reins off him a little bit and let him go past 100 pitches, maybe to 110.”

Fulmer threw 96 pitches, 60 for strikes. He had, for the most part, good command of his four-seam fastball and sinker, but his slider was spotty. As has been his pattern, he didn’t start throwing his change-up until the third inning. That, too, was an inconsistent pitch for him.

“It had its moments,” Fulmer said of his outing. “It also had its downside, as well. I think I could have done a better job of putting more zeros up. But I give so much credit to the guy behind the plate (James McCann), the defense and most importantly this offense.

“I’m just glad they stayed with me and I could get five innings in.”

He showed some grit in the second inning, allowing only a run after loading the bases with one out. He was able to strike out a good-hitting pitcher in Joe Ross and get leadoff hitter Ben Revere to ground out to first base.

Fulmer threw scoreless innings in the third and fourth, again retiring Harper, on a hard-hit grounder that shortstop Andrew Romine made a superb play on. But after getting the first two hitters in the fifth, he walked Harper.

Ryan Zimmerman was next and Fulmer fell behind 2-0. Both pitches were borderline and he thought the first one was a strike for sure.

“The 0-0 pitch was a slider and I thought it caught the plate,” he said. “But it’s not up to me. I respect all these umpires. They are here for a reason. They do a great job. I have the utmost respect for the umpires.”

The 2-0 pitch to Zimmerman was also a ball. But somehow he was able to put the barrel of his bat on it and send it over the left-field fence. That put the Nationals up 3-2.

“I came back (into the clubhouse) and looked at it,” Fulmer said. “I think it was six inches inside at his knees. You have to tip your cap to him. That wasn’t even a strike. Not much I could do about that. He got me.”

The Tigers had his back, though, scoring three times in a wild top of the sixth.

All in all, it was another step forward for Fulmer, who is likely to get at least another start while Shane Greene remains on the disabled list.

“I felt as the game went on, I started to locate my four-seamer better,” he said. “The sinker was good today. I was able to get a lot of ground balls, especially when I needed to. But I need to keep working on efficiency. I want to give my team a chance to win and hopefully I can give more than five innings.

“I need to be more efficient and start pounding the zone earlier in the game.”