Fulmer perfect for 5 innings, Tigers imperfect in squirrelly 7th

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers starter Michael Fulmer walks to the dugout after being pulled during the seventh inning Sunday.

Detroit — You can blame it on the squirrel if you want to.

"Yeah, it's all the squirrel's fault," joked Tigers starter Michael Fulmer.

No. More than anything superstitious, Fulmer fell victim to some well-placed ground balls and some sub-par defensive work in a fatal seventh inning.

"If there is ever a time for the saying, 'That's baseball,' this would be the time," said Fulmer, who for five innings was perfect on Sunday. 

But the St. Louis Cardinals scored five times in that seventh inning, breaking up a scoreless tie, to salvage the final game of a three-game series with the Tigers, 5-2.

BOX SCORE: Cardinals 5, Tigers 2

"They found some holes, we dropped a ball," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Anytime you drop a ball, it seems to turn into a big inning. But Fulmer did really, really well. We had a few things go wrong and we couldn't really stop it."

Fulmer, with his fastball hitting 98 mph and his slider razor sharp, didn't allow a base runner for five innings — 15 straight outs. He lost both the perfect game (two walks) and the no-hitter (single by light-hitting backup catcher Carson Kelly) in the sixth inning.

Thanks to a well-timed pitch-out and James McCann throwing out Yairo Munoz trying to steal second base, the game remained scoreless.

"The first thing I did was point to the dugout," Fulmer said. "They called it. Slim (bench coach Steve Liddle) must've saw something. It was a great call, well-executed and Mac threw a bullet to second. And I was able to get back into my rhythm and get out of the inning."

But before Fulmer threw a pitch in the seventh — the first pitch he’s thrown in the seventh inning since July 3 — a squirrel got loose and delayed the game for several minutes. A squirrel very famously ran across home plate during the 2011 National League Division Series and the Cardinals went on to win the World Series.

So, the squirrel happened.

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And with one out, two softly hit ground balls to third baseman Jeimer Candelario were not converted into outs — both scored as singles.

"All he's got to do is keep working," Gardenhire said of Candelario. "Those are plays, we didn't get them. Whatever. We have to go from there."

One was hit over the bag.

"My glove hit the bag, so no chance on that one," Candelario said. "On the other one, I just couldn't get a grip on the ball to make a throw."

The second ball was hit to his left. He stopped it on a dive but double-clutched and never made a throw.

The flood gates were opened.

The Cardinals rapped four hits off Fulmer in the seventh, none with a hit probability above 50 percent, according to Statcast. Niko Goodrum also missed a fly ball in right field and when the dust settled, the Cardinals had sent 10 men to the plate and scored five runs, two of them unearned.

It’s been the darndest year for Fulmer. He has three wins, none since June 14, the Tigers are 5-18 in his 23 starts and have lost the last nine.  

"It's tough," he said. "My job is to get team wins and I haven't been able to do that all year. You look at that seventh inning. Four or five ground balls, nothing doing. That's part of the game.

"They just hit ground balls in the right spots, I guess. If one of those is at somebody, we get a double play and we're out of the inning."

Again, there was no margin for error for Fulmer. The Tigers offense, which has supported him with 2.7 runs per start this season, was being handcuffed by Cardinals right-hander John Gant, who limited them to two hits through six innings.

Gant and Fulmer were teammates in the Mets system just a few years ago. 

The Tigers finally broke through in the seventh. Doubles by Nick Castellanos (who had two on the day), McCann and Ronny Rodriguez plated a pair of runs. But, too little too late.

"Obviously, (Fulmer) is a winner, he wants to win," Gardenhire said. "But all he can do is throw the ball. He didn't make a bad pitch. They just rolled some balls through. I don't worry about the kid. He's a tough guy.

"But I am sure he's frustrated. He wants to win."

Three of Fulmer's four starts since coming off the disabled list have been solid. He's allowed just eight hits and four earned runs in those starts.

"The good news is, I feel great," Fulmer said. "This is the best I've felt in September in the last two years. I am very happy with the progress with the things I've been working on."