Detroit — It’s a Grade 1 strain, which is the good news for Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer.
The bad news, it’s a strain in his oblique muscle — a problematic, slow-healing, easily-aggravated area for pitchers and hitters, alike. So, neither Fulmer nor the Tigers’ medical team will venture a guess at his timeline to return.
“The most aggravating thing for me is that I was feeling healthy,” said Fulmer, who was placed on the disabled list Friday. “My arm never felt better at this time of year. Usually, it gets fatigued around the All-Star break. This year, it felt like I was staying strong.
“It was almost like a too-good-to-be-true thing.”
Fulmer was about 19 pitches into a light bullpen session before the game Friday when he felt something grab in his left side. He said it felt like a big cramp. The MRI was encouraging, but he knows he’s going to be down for weeks, not days.
“An oblique is something you can’t really do much for,” Fulmer said. “You try to treat it and give it time. If you rush back from it, you’re going to have setbacks. I’ve never injured or strained an oblique, but I can see now why guys take their time coming back from it.
“Because it’s only the second day and it’s super sore. It’s just tough. Just bad timing for me because everything else feels healthy, the best I’ve felt in my career. It just sucks that this has happened.”
Fulmer said there was nothing unusual about the bullpen session. He said he warmed up as he always does, went through his normal routine and nothing felt tight.
“He’s worked really hard, he’s made some adjustments and he was feeling really good,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That’s the sad part. He’s been feeling really good. This isn’t something you take lightly. You have to be really careful with it.
“He will be careful with it and we will be very careful with him. We’re going to make sure he gets back to 100 percent before we do anything.”
Fulmer waived off questions about how the injury affects his trade value. He could not care less about that.
“That’s not been on my mind at all,” he said. “They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. After my last start, I said I just have to be a little selfish right now. I have to try to get my numbers up and to better myself and then go from there.
“I just want to do my job and help this team win games and stay healthy… I haven’t pitched up to my capability, I don’t think, and now this oblique thing sets me back quite a bit. But I will be excited to come back and when I do, I want to finish it strong.”
The fallout from Fulmer’s injury includes the return to the rotation of left-hander Blaine Hardy, who will start opposite Red Sox Chris Sale on Sunday.
Hardy made eight starts earlier this season subbing for injured Jordan Zimmermann and went 3-1 with a 3.71 ERA. Gardenhire said Hardy would remain in the rotation for at least the duration of Fulmer’s injury.
“Yes, and we are stretching out (right-handed pitcher) Artie Lewicki at Toledo,” Gardenhire said. “This time of year, you never know what may happen.”
Tigers starters Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano are also on the trade block.
Hardy has pitched mostly in short relief stints since going back to the bullpen. He has pitched two full innings in just one outing. Gardenhire said Hardy would be on a pitch count Sunday.
“Maybe 50-60 pitches,” Gardenhire said. “We will see how he feels. Just play it by ear, and by score.”
As good as Hardy was in the rotation, he was better in the bullpen. He was a stabilizing force and gave Gardenhire a reliable lefty to bridge the gap to late-inning relievers Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene.
Since July 5, the Tigers’ bullpen posted the lowest ERA (1.96) in the American League.
Daniel Stumpf, now the lone lefty in the bullpen, will have a bigger role with Hardy starting. He was being used almost exclusively to get left-handed hitters out.
“Having only one lefty makes a difference,” Gardenhire said. “We will have to use Stumpf when we think the big moment is. He’s going to have to pitch innings now, not just outs.”