Detroit — In his last start, a two-hit, 1-0 loss in San Diego, Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer featured an almost unhittable two-seam fastball. He threw 61 of them, ranging in speed from 97-99 mph. It produced 12 swings and misses and not a single base hit.
Naturally, the Royals scouted that game. And their hitters were put on high alert, especially the left-handed hitters, because the two-seam fastball’s swing-back action can be paralyzing to lefties.
But the Tigers changed the game plan. Fulmer, who was one out from a four-hit complete game Thursday, threw 39 four-seam fastballs and 29 two-seam fastballs in a 7-3 win. He used one to set up the other to great effect.
“We tried to mix it up throwing the four-seamer inside to both right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters, and also play the two-seamer off of that,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “We tried to go four-seam just to get them off the two-seam, especially to lefties.
“By now they know he’s got that good swing-back pitch.”
A four-seam fastball is generally firmer than a two-seamer and stays on its plane. Fulmer can manipulate his two-seam fastball to run or to sink, depending on the situation. And unique to him, he maintains upper-90s velocity on both.
“Yeah, the thing is, most pitchers who have that pitch are throwing it at 91 mph or so,” Avila said. “He’s throwing it 96-97. So even when you are expecting it, it’s hard to react to it.”
Fulmer’s four-seamer was put in play five times Thursday. According to MLB’s Baseball Savant, the average exit velocity on those five balls was 69.4 mph — weak contact. He got eight called strikes and three swinging strikes on the four-seamer. He also got four called strikes on the two-seamer.
“Today he had good command of both,” Avila said. “You could tell, guys were taking pitches they thought would be inside and they stayed true.”
Fulmer was also able to use his varied fastballs to induce three double-play ground balls.
“He was able to get them to swing, thinking it was a four-seamer,” Avila said. “But when it had sink, they hit on top of the ball.”
He earned a hat-tip from the Royals.
“He was tough,” Lorenzo Cain said. “He’s very aggressive in the zone, throws a lot of strikes. He just kept mixing it up. First at-bat he went mostly heaters a lot of the way, second at-bat a lot of heaters. I don’t know.
“He did a great job of mixing in his two-seam. … He was locked in, and did a great job of keeping us off-balance today.”
Royals reliever Kevin McCarthy was exasperated; to the point of surrender.
By the time J.D. Martinez fouled off 11 pitches in the seventh inning, nine after he got two strikes on him, he was just rooting for the at-bat to end.
“I was just trying to give it to him,” McCarthy said. “Like, ‘Put it in play.’ After a couple, it was like, ‘Damn.’ I don’t know what else to do.’ ”
Martinez nearly didn’t finish the at-bat after fouling one off his right foot — the one he sprained in the spring that cost him the first six weeks of the season.
“He said he was all right, he just needed more time before he finished the at-bat,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was a great at-bat.”
Martinez fouled off five more pitches after taking one off the foot before slapping pitch No. 15 into left field, knocking in Ian Kinsler.
It had been one of those stretches for Kinsler. Eleven of his previous 14 outs had been balls hit in the air, some hard, most lazy fly balls. It’s something he’s battled his entire career.
Thus, when he popped one up foul in his first at-bat Thursday, he thought, “Here we go again.”
But the ball sailed out of play. A couple of pitches later, he stayed back on an off-speed pitch and lined it sharply into right field.
“I was happy that first one went out of bounds,” he said. “Happy I got another crack at it.”
The line-drive swing was what he’d been searching for and things seemed to click back in place. He hit his ninth home run of the season in the third and grounded to third in the fourth.
“Just keep working on what you do every day,” he said. “You try to prepare yourself and stay with the process. Hopefully today is the day that gets me going, gets me going in the right direction.”