Detroit – You see him moving wide-eyed and respectful through the veteran-laden clubhouse and he looks every bit the rookie that he is.
He sees Michael Fulmer jerseys on sale in the Tigers shop and he’s genuinely fired up.
“I guess you can cross that off my bucket list,” he said on Saturday. “It’s a pretty cool sight. I’m getting stuff on Twitter, people mentioning buying my jersey. Stuff like that. It’s really surreal. I can’t really believe it yet.”
Then you watch him pitch. There is no trace of the wide-eyed rookie.
“You know who he reminds me of?” said Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez, who pitched a scoreless ninth Sunday to get the win in Fulmer’s start. “John Lackey when he came up. We came up together through the minor leagues and to the big leagues. He's a bulldog.
“He's not afraid to have the confidence to say, ‘I'm going to get the job done. I don't care who I am facing or what the situation is.' He has no fear. He controls his emotions. He reminds me a lot of Lackey. He believes in himself, like, if he gets in trouble, he's going to get out of it.”
Fulmer pitched eight complete innings for the first time in his young career Sunday, allowing two runs – the most he’s allowed in 10 starts going back to May 15. He gave up single runs in the second and third, struck out Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon with runners on first and third to end the third, and then slammed the door.
From the end of the third through the eighth, he allowed two singles. He dispatched 17 of the last 19 Royals he faced.
“He’s really grown a lot since spring training,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “He’s not just a fastball pitcher. He’s able to throw two other, off-speed pitches for strikes, throw them where he wants them, get them down in the zone where he needs to.
“He was really, really big for us today.”
This was his second start against the Royals, so you expected maybe they’d have a better idea how to attack him. Well, he allowed five hits and a run in 5.1 innings in Kansas City June 17. He allowed two runs and six hits in eight innings Sunday.
He also was stingier the third and fourth times through the order, evident in the Royals going 2-for-17 from the fourth inning on.
“That’s what you have to do at the Major League level,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “You can’t get called up to a higher level. This is the highest level there is, so in order to stick here, you have to learn to adjust and you have to learn to get hitters out multiple times over the course of the season.”
Doesn’t seem to be a problem for Fulmer. He was at 86 pitches after the seventh inning. The game was tied 2-2 and the Royals were at the top of the order in the eighth. And still, Ausmus didn’t hesitate to trot Fulmer back out there.
“He was still strong,” Ausmus said. “I wasn’t concerned about sending him back out there. But if we’d have gotten the lead, I would have liked to get him the win by sending Justin Wilson and then K-Rod out there.”
Fulmer dispatched the Royals in nine pitches in the eighth.
“It’s a blessing to have a manager that trusts me like that this early in my big-league career,” Fulmer said. “Hopefully I never let him down.”
For now, Fulmer will continue to get the ball every five days. But the Tigers are closely monitoring his workload. He’s not out of the woods yet in terms of innings restrictions.
“We don’t have a set ceiling in terms of innings, but we are going to be careful with him,” Ausmus said. “We will push him back when we can, maybe skip him when we can. Hopefully we can get him through the entire season.”
Ausmus and Fulmer talked before the All-Star break. Fulmer told him he doesn’t need to be treated with kid gloves.
“I get where they’re coming from,” Fulmer said. “No matter how much I talk to Brad, they’re still going to do what they need to do. I told Brad I want to go out and pitch every fifth day. It’s just my mentality. It’s who I am. It’s how I want to be.
“But I’ve never disagreed with front office, anybody. I would never disagree with them. They tell me the reason and I just nod and smile. I can tell them what my opinions are, but it’s not going to change and I understand that.”
Ausmus wouldn’t want Fulmer to feel any other way.
“He said he wants to pitch and he thinks he can handle it,” Ausmus said. “But it’s not his call. We’re trying to do a combination of what’s best for him and what’s best for the Detroit Tigers.”
So far, Fulmer is accomplishing both.