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Detroit -- It had the feel of watching a NASCAR race; waiting for the inevitable crash.

That’s what it has come down lately when Tigers ace Michael Fulmer pitches. No matter how strong he looks through five innings, a sudden fiery crash is looming.

Entering his start Friday, his ERA in the 10 innings he’s worked after the fifth was 11.70, and opponents were hitting him at a .395 clip with a 1.105 OPS.

“He’s got to beat it himself,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game. “We can’t help him. I can’t stand out there with him. The catchers can’t do anything different. He just needs to find a way to work himself through it. Once he does it once, he will take off from there.”

Buckle up, because there was no crash Friday.

"I finally felt like I was back to my old self a little bit," said Fulmer, who pitched seven strong innings in the Tigers' 4-1 loss to the Indians. "My fastball was coming out good. My change-up and slider were there.

"Now I have to keep doing what I've been doing, keep getting better."

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For this night, for sure, the Tigers ace was back in place.

"It was big," Gardenhire said. "The whole game he threw the ball really well. But getting through those last few innings was huge. I think he really enjoyed that. We talked about it afterward and he said he felt great. That's what we needed to see."

Fulmer entered with a gaudy (for him) 4.73 ERA and the Tigers were 4-8 in his starts.

And he was facing an Indians team that beat him up for nine runs (six earned) in three innings back in April. This time he went seven strong innings, allowing one run and five hits. He struck out seven and, for just the second time this year, no walks.

"Everything we've been working on finally, the hard work paid off a little bit," Fulmer said. "I just feel healthy. That's my main goal is to make every single one of my starts and be there for this team.

"I am going to try and stay on track."

As for the late crash, not this time. Much of the damage in past starts has come after the 85-pitch mark. Fulmer was at 86 pitches entering the seventh Friday and he struck out Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. His 103rd and 107th pitches were 98-mph fastballs.

Was it on his mind as he went back out for the sixth and seventh innings? 

"You can't really think like that," he said. "You just have to stick to the game plan in those innings. It paid off. I was able to command my fastball in those later innings."

Of his 108 pitches, 71 were fastballs (two-seamers and four-seamers) ranging in velocity from 95 to 99 mph. When he faced the Indians in April, his fastballs were in the 94-96 mph range and the Indians feasted on them.

"His fastball was very good, and he was mixing the two-seamer and four-seamer," catcher James McCann said. "He came out and really set the tone for us."

And there was no reason to deviate from the plan the second and third time through the order.

"What's the old addage: If it ain't broke don't fix it?" McCann said. "He was getting guys out so why change? You force the opposition to make the adjustment before you adjust. We stuck with the plan. We did what we wanted to do."

The Indians only run off Fulmer came in the fourth on an RBI double by Yonder Alonso.

"They're tough," Fulmer said of the Indians' lineup. "Obviously, their success against us, it hasn't really been close. So tonight, the fight we had and to keep a close game all the way to the ninth was something special. 

"I feel like this team (the Tigers) are knocking on the door. Everybody is positive, proactive and trying to get their work in to make this team better. Everybody is doing what they can to provide for this team and I think we are very close right now."

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

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