Lakeland, Fla. — It was some kind of breaking ball, that much was certain. And it was effective. Orioles hitters kept flailing at it, eight swings and misses on that pitch alone.
But what was Michael Fulmer throwing? This pitch was reading 83-86 mph on the radar gun. His slider last year was 88-90 mph. His curveball last year, the few he threw, was 78-79 mph. So what was this mid-80s pitch with a late horizontal break?
“A slider,” said Fulmer, who threw 83 pitches over five innings Monday in the Tigers’ 4-2 spring loss to the Orioles. “Everything feels great. You always have that dead-arm period, or times when your breaking ball won’t break.
“But every time I’ve thrown, I’ve been more and more excited about how good that pitch has been, how late the break is and all the swings and reads I’m getting from the hitters. It’s going in the right direction, for sure.”
The pitch, which likely will replace a curveball as his off-speed pitch of choice (his change-up is firmer, at 86-87 mph), was borne from his elbow inflammation earlier this spring.
“I was throwing my slider a different way trying to get more depth on it, and I was doing it the wrong way,” Fulmer said. “I was actually hyper-extending my elbow and that’s where the inflammation came in.”
So he stopped throwing it that way. Pitching coach Chris Bosio and bullpen coach Rick Anderson showed him a new way to throw it, using the same arm motion as his fastball, but with a little less velocity and a bigger break.
“If it was 84 to 86, that’s perfect for me,” he said. “The bigger break, it paid off today. It was the best I’ve seen it all last year, too. I was really happy with my slider and change-up today.”
This was Fulmer’s penultimate spring training start, and it was by far his most labor-intensive: 83 pitches, 54 strikes, in five innings.
“I’d like to throw 100 (in his next start), just to get ready for the season” he said. “Last year and the year before, I think the highest I got in spring training was 80-sometime pitches. Then in the first game of the regular season when I get to 85 I am getting pulled after five or six innings.
“Bosio said we’d get stretched out to 100-105. I’d like to go into the first start of the season and have no limits.”
His only clean inning was his last. He gave up two runs, six hits and a walk, but seemed to make his best pitches with runners in scoring position.
Case in point: He gave up a bloop single to former Tiger Alex Presley and a swinging-bunt single to Austin Hays. Those runners moved up on a throwing error by third baseman Jeimer Candelario.
Fulmer, undaunted, struck out Pedro Alvarez, paralyzing him with a 95-mph fastball, and then ended the inning by getting Anthony Santander to pop out.
The Orioles were 0-for-7 against Fulmer with runners in scoring position.
“Our plan going in was to work on the back-door sinker to right-handers and the front-door sinker to lefties,” Fulmer said. “I got a few punch-outs with that early and I think, word of mouth, it got through their dugout and they started sitting on it.
“Which is fine. It’s spring training and we’re working on things. I thought I was getting it in there and they were getting to it because they were sitting on it.”
Four of the six hits were by two batters — Presley and Chance Sisco. Sisco tripled and doubled off Fulmer.
“But with them sitting on the sinker, it opened up that slider going in to lefties and going away from righties,” he said. “I think today that pitch looked like a fastball out of my hand; that’s what Mac (catcher James McCann) said. I was getting swings and misses because of that.”
Of his 83 pitches, 54 were strikes and 13 were swings and misses. He struck out five.
It is uncertain where and when his next start will be. He is lined up to be the No. 2 starter behind Jordan Zimmermann. If so, then his first regular season start will be March 31 — 12 days.
If Fulmer has his way, he would take an extra day or two between starts now and be on a five-day routine going into his first regular season start.
Shelving the curve?
Fulmer didn’t say for sure he was putting his curveball in moth balls, but it sounds like it. And let’s be clear, he threw only 12 of them all last season.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I threw some early in camp and I wasn’t real happy with it. Then the slider thing came up and my elbow started barking and I wanted to work on the slider.”
He said it he’s always had trouble trying to perfect both the slider and curve at the same time because they tend to blend into the same pitch. And if he can keep the slider in the mid-80s, with the horizontal break, he may not need to throw a curveball.
“With the slider at 84-86 and not 90, it’s better to keep the hitters off balance,” Fulmer said. “That’s why I went to the curveball some last year. With my slider at 88 and my change-up at 88 and my fastball (in the mid-90s), I didn’t have that one pitch to freeze a guy or get him out on his front foot.
“Now, I can get them even more out in front and make them think in the back of their head that have to stay back on the pitch instead of just reacting to it.”
Finally, after battling through shoulder impingement, left-hander Blaine Hardy made his spring debut and threw a scoreless inning.
“It almost feels like it hasn’t been as long as it has since I’ve thrown off a mound,” said Hardy, who gave up a lead-off single, then erased it with a 5-4-3 double play. “Feels good. I was a little up in the zone, but that’s because I was amped up.
“It’s a small fix, something I can clean up the more times I go out there.”
Hardy will pitch again Thursday, either in a game or on the back fields. Bosio said he couldn’t guarantee he will get three game appearances before camp breaks.
“We're not going to say you're going to get three,” Bosio said. “We'll see how he comes out of it and then we'll schedule the next one, just like anybody else. … It's a day-by-day evaluation on these guys because we've got to try to keep them healthy.”
Around the horn
Back on Feb. 20, Orioles starter Chris Tillman was throwing a bullpen in front of the Tigers’ front office on the back fields at TigerTown. The next day, he signed with the Orioles. And on Monday, he beat the Tigers, allowing a run and six hits in five innings.
… Candelario had a single and an RBI double. Dixon Machado had a pair of doubles.
… The Tigers will start minor-league camper Sandy Baez against the Yankees on Tuesday. It is Mike Fiers’ turn in the rotation, but he’s been held back while he deals with back stiffness.