Fulmer, Pelfrey, Infante shine in rare spring win
Lakeland, Fla. — Funny thing about rust — you never know when or how it might manifest.
Michael Fulmer was back on the mound Sunday in the Tigers’ 4-3 spring win over the Mets. He hadn’t pitched in a game in 12 days (missing one start) because of an ankle sprain that cost him a chance to pitch in the WBC. Fun fact: March 1, the last game Fulmer started, was the last exhibition game the Tigers won until Sunday.
But for two innings, it was like he was rust-proof.
He was throwing his fastball at 95 and 96 mph right out of the gate. And his slider was befuddling Mets hitters. Fulmer struck out the side in the first inning, getting six swings and misses, all but one off his slider.
He struck out Michael Conforto with a 2-2 change-up.
Then he put the Mets down in order in the second, two pop-ups and a fly out.
“It was good for 12 days off,” Fulmer said “Especially the first two innings, I felt I was throwing the ball better, the slider was good, the change-up was good.”
Then came the third and suddenly he was leaving balls up in the zone and falling behind hitters.
“That’s just part of trying to build up your pitch count, build up arm strength,” Fulmer said. “It’s just part of it. Hopefully next time I’ll be able to get through three innings for sure and hopefully four."
The Mets scored twice off him in the third, a broken-bat single by Phillip Evans, a double to center by L.J. Mazzilli and a double by Patrick Biondi — all players Fulmer came up with in the Mets farm system before being traded to Detroit for Yoenis Cespedes.
“Yeah, I knew a lot of those guys, especially the bottom part of the order — the guys that did all the damage to me,” Fulmer said, with a smile.
In all, he threw 44 pitches, 30 for strikes.
“I don’t know if I’d say fatigue was setting in; maybe in my legs a little bit,” Fulmer said. “Overall, just minor changes (to be made). It’s all part of spring training. The more outings I have, the more build-up I get. … I am just glad to be back out there. It felt like a long 12 days off.”
Fulmer said there was no doubt in his mind that he’ll be plenty ready to answer the bell when the regular season starts.
“There’s still a while left in camp,” he said. “I know by Opening Day, by my first start, I’ll be back 100 percent built-up and ready to make that start, for sure. You are always going to be rusty with 12 days between starts.”
Fulmer is scheduled to make four more starts before the end of camp, plenty of time to build to 90 pitches.
Three other storylines from Sunday:
• Omar Infante. He is on a mission to show the Tigers and any of the other 29 big-league clubs that he’s far from finished at age 35.
“I don’t know what the needs are in other camps, but he’s swinging the bat extremely well and he’s played second base extremely well,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s a professional by all accounts and he certainly has the ability to still play baseball at the Major-League level.”
Infante, hitting .400 this spring, ignited the Tigers’ comeback Sunday with a pair of doubles. The second one, was a two-out, two-run rocket into the corner in left field that provided the margin of victory in the sixth.
He also made two sterling defensive plays, an over-the-shoulder catch in short right field and a brilliant grab of a hard-hit ground ball up the middle.
He’s doing all he can to win the 25th roster spot with the Tigers, but there are two critical things he can't control — his age and that of the man he’s competing with. For him to make the club — presuming there are no injury issues — would most likely require the Tigers to place Dixon Machado on waivers since he is out of minor league options.
“That would be a consideration, yes,” Ausmus said. “But let’s just see how it plays out.”
• Mike Pelfrey. He came in having allowed eight runs and 12 hits in six innings and responded by throwing three perfect innings — nine up and nine down.
“He was throwing strikes,” said Alex Avila, who caught all three innings. “When I caught him a few outings ago, his stuff was there, it was just outside the zone. Today he was throwing strike one for the most part and using a good mixture of pitches.
“He was always behind last time so were going to fastballs and pitches he could put in the zone. When he works ahead like he did today, we are able to do different things to set hitters up.”
His fastball velocity was up, too, registering at 92-94 mph. He was also able to command his sinker, slider and curveball.
“This was good for him,” Avila said. “He took another step forward and he got some confidence. What he showed today, that plays in the big leagues.”
Pelfrey is fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation, which seems Matthew Boyd’s job to lose right now. Pelfrey, if he continues to pitch effectively, could push for a long-relief role in the bullpen.
• Sandy Baez. The hard-throwing right-hander, who pitched at Low-A West Michigan last year, closed out the win with a 1-2-3 ninth. His fastball was clocked at 97 mph.
Asked if Baez could end up being a big story next spring, Ausmus said, “There’s a chance he could be a story this year.”
Baez, a starting pitcher since turning pro, is probably slated for Double A Erie to start the season. But he’s been impressive, both with his high-octane fastball and his splitter.
“West Michigan to Detroit geographically isn’t very far,” Ausmus said. “But in the world of baseball it’s a huge leap. But he’s opened some eyes. He’s pitched at the back end of games against mostly minor leaguers, but he does not look like he’s timid or intimidated by the batters he’s facing.”