Sarasota, Fla. — From this point forward, it’s just about pitching. It's about his performance and about what he needs to do better for the next start.
The injury story is over.
That’s how Tigers ace Michael Fulmer is looking at it after he made his spring training debut pitching two solid innings in the Tigers' 8-6 exhibition win over the Orioles.
“It feels weird not to feel anything,” he said with a chuckle. “But seriously, there’s a deep breath of relief. We can finally say the rehab is over — even though it’s been over for a long time. This is the turning point. The rehab is gone and we can focus on what I need to do to get ready for the season.”
Fulmer had season-ending ulnar transposition surgery on his pitching elbow in September. The ulnar nerve was re-positioned to the front of his elbow to eliminate the scraping and pinching that was causing him to lose feeling in his fingers.
“I was so excited, almost a little nervous,” Fulmer said about getting back on the mound. “I don’t know why. I was 100 percent confident in my elbow. But just trying to see all the work I put in over the off-season, being in Lakeland most of the winter, working out every day, doing my throwing program and my shoulder stuff — it’s just great to see it pay off.”
Fulmer threw 23 pitches (18 strikes), nine in a clean second inning. He struck out two, both on called third strikes. The only blemish was a 1-2 slider he spun to Trey Mancini that landed beyond the left-field fence in the first.
“Everything felt normal,” he said. “With the wind blowing the way it was, kind of left to right, I threw a lot more sinkers than four-seamers.”
That was a blessing in disguise, because the one pitch that hadn’t come around for him yet was the sinker.
“Yeah, that was the one pitch I was worried about in my bullpens,” he said. “I rely on that pitch a lot, especially glove-side (inside on left-handed hitters). It wasn’t coming back. But today I just trusted it and threw it and it was back to where I want it to be.”
His fastball topped out at 94 mph, but that should steadily increase as he builds arm strength. The command on his pitches was what he was emphasizing and he was putting the ball right where catcher James McCann was asking for it — to McCann’s detriment at times.
“In the second inning, Mac asked for a slider down, on the plate,” Fulmer said. “I threw it right on the plate and he blocked it with his forearm and he was mad at me (chuckles). But he asked for it.
“The umpire came out and I said, ‘Tell him not to complain about that ball in the dirt, he asked for it on the plate.’ ”
Just as maybe Fulmer let out a sigh of relief after this one, so did manager Ron Gardenhire.
“He’s just a horse,” he said. “He was raring back and really throwing good. You could tell the ball was coming out of his hand nice and everything went well for him. That’s really nice for us to see him back out there and the ball jumping out of his hand like that.
“It’s really good for our organization.”
INTO THE FIRE
It wasn't necessarily intended to work out this way, but it's how it lined up Monday for left-handed pitching prospect Gregory Soto, who got quite an indoctrination into pitching in the big leagues.
Soto was the Tigers' minor league pitcher of the year last year, but he did not face hitters like this last season at Lakeland or West Michigan. He pitched the sixth inning and faced the heart of the Orioles’ big-league lineup — Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and Mark Trumbo.
“That’s Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio),” Gardenhire said, smiling. “I bring them in when Boz says to.”
Soto held up well. With a fastball hitting 96 mph, he got Machado to fly out and struck out Davis looking. Jones (clean), Schoop (bloop) and Trumbo (infield) all singled, chasing in a run — which was unearned because of a throwing error by Alexi Amarista.
“You do want to see how people can handle things, and as we go along, that will be a big part of it here,” Gardenhire said. “We will want to see how they handle situations. Facing major-league hitters is very important to these guys.”
The Tigers had their hitting shoes on Monday.
Center fielder Leonys Martin had three hits. JaCoby Jones had a pair of RBI singles. McCann had a two-run single. Niko Goodrum, a non-roster invitee trying to win a utility role, had a pair of doubles.
Jim Adduci, another non-roster invitee, rapped a two-run single in the seventh.
Finally, the spring debuts of starting pitchers Mike Fiers and Daniel Norris are here.
Fiers, whom the Tigers signed for $6 million this off-season, will start Tuesday in Clearwater against the Phillies. Norris, penciled in as the fifth starter, will go Wednesday in Tampa against the Yankees.
The only pitcher in camp yet to pitch is veteran Francisco Liriano, who was signed Friday.