Lakeland, Fla. — Michael Fulmer, in his final spring start, breezed through seven scoreless innings on 91 pitches. He allowed two infield singles and a walk, facing the minimum 21 batters.
“I’m definitely ready,” he said after the Tigers beat the Braves 10-3 Sunday.
“That being said, I feel like I didn’t even do much today,” he said. “The defense was awesome. I just tried to throw strikes and let them put it in play. We had a few web gems out there.”
Center fielder Leonys Martin ran a ball down at the wall. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario channeled his inner Nolan Arenado and made a brilliant backhand play behind the bag. Catcher John Hicks threw out two speedy baserunners, Dansby Swanson at second and Ender Inciarte at third.
Oh, and by the way, the Tigers bashed out 17 hits and put Fulmer in cruise control with a six-run second inning off Braves right-hander and No. 2 starter Mike Foltynewicz — the same guy who pitched five no-hit innings against the Tigers on March 15.
“It’s a two-part thing,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Yeah, we scored some runs, but Fulmer still had to do his thing – and he did it. He threw the ball very well.”
The two web-gem candidates also delivered the big knocks in the six-run inning. Martin and Candelario, the top two hitters Gardenhire’s lineup, produced back-to-back two-run doubles.
Miguel Cabrera, the No. 3 hitter, had an RBI single in the second and walloped his third homer of the spring in the fourth.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias, who is having a stellar spring, had three hits including a monster home run onto the berm just to the left of the batter’s eye in center field.
So, yes, maybe it was a leisurely stroll for Fulmer, but he made the most of it. His fastball was ringing at 95-96 mph — regular-season ready. He worked his change-up in earlier in the game, which had the Braves hitters off-balance from the start. He only struck out three, but induced mostly soft contact.
“That was a big thing today, mixing the change-up in early in the game,” Fulmer said. “The last time out I relied on the fastball too much and I gave up a couple of runs…I was getting ground balls and easy fly balls because they were out front a lot. I think mixing the change-up to lefties and righties really got them off-balance.”
Fulmer will face the Pirates at Comerica Park on March 31.
“Six days between starts is optimal right now for me,” he said. “I’ll get a couple of days to rest and recover, throw a bullpen and then wait two days and pitch. That’s what I needed today – seven innings and 91 pitches.
“I was able to work on everything.”
Alex Wilson, who has had another rough spring, gave up three runs in the ninth. But Gardenhire isn’t concerned, still giving Wilson the veteran’s benefit of the doubt.
“We tried him in a starting role (at the beginning of spring) and I think he’s been out of whack,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been trying to get back into the mold. I think when the clock starts ticking for real, he’ll be fine. He will settle in and amp up a little more.”
Wilson was strong in his last outing and the big blow against him Sunday was a wind-aided triple.
“He wasn’t bad today,” Gardenhire said. “It didn’t look good but it wasn’t bad. When he gets that cutter working and he gets the ball in — he knows how to pitch. He’ll be fine.”
Because of his limited playing time behind the plate with the Tigers (he filled in at first base a lot last season), it may be surprising how well Hicks throws from behind the plate.
He’s gunned down seven baserunners this spring.
Turns out, it’s always been a big part of his game. In 2012, he set a California League (High-A) record by throwing out 54 percent of would-be base-stealers. The next year, in Double-A, he threw out 49 percent.
“He threw the fire out of the ball today,” Gardenhire said. “He’s quick out of the zone, quick feet and a strong arm — and accurate. That was fun to watch today. He’s been bouncing around back there pretty good.”
Barring rainouts or other unforeseen calamities, it appears the Tigers rotation is almost set for the first week of the regular season.
Jordan Zimmermann will pitch Opening Day on Thursday. Fulmer will pitch Saturday. Francisco Liriano and Matthew Boyd would go April 1 and April 2.
Gardenhire and pitching coach Chris Bosio still have to decide when Daniel Norris will make his first start. Most likely, Zimmermann will pitch on April 3, on his normal five days of rest, and Norris would go April 4.