Lakeland, Fla. — He’s coming off knee surgery in the offseason. He hadn’t pitched in a game since last Sept. 15. He slow-played things early in camp by design, and on top of that, he missed three days of work for personal reasons.
So, Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer didn’t have a ton of expectations for his debut Wednesday.
“I was just worried about my pants being too tight on my right leg,” he said, joking, sort of. “Just trying to focus with the knee brace sticking out too much.”
He has worn the brace on his surgically-repaired knee all spring — not only to hold the meniscus in place, but also as a tool to help him get used to some new mechanics. He has changed his delivery, trying to take some of the stress off his right knee after two surgeries in five years.
“I was just focusing on my mechanics and making sure I was pain-free,” said Fulmer, who allowed four runs and three hits in two innings of the Tigers’ rain-shortened, 10-4 Grapefruit League win Wednesday. “Everything will come. I just need some reps.”
The knee brace keeps Fulmer from activating his heel in his delivery. He used to drive hard off the mound with his right leg and his knee would invert on the follow through. Now, driving more off the balls of his foot, the knee stays firm.
The question was, will he lose some of his power. He is still in the early stages of building arm strength, too, so his velocity -- normally 95-97 mph -- was down to 90-91.
“I’ll let you guys worry about that,” he said. “I’m not too worried about it. That’s the last thing that’s going to come along. I am just working on trying to repeat my delivery and have pain-free mechanics. That was the only goal today.”
Most of the damage off him came on a three-run home run by Greg Bird in the first inning. All three of those runs came after he appeared to induce an inning-ending double-play grounder from Miguel Andujar. Second baseman Josh Harrison, in his Tigers debut, got the out at second but threw wildly to first base.
“Just shaking the cobwebs out,” Harrison said. “But I need to make that play.”
Fulmer needed 26 pitches (15 strikes) to get out of the first inning. He sat for about 30 minutes while the Tigers batted around in the bottom of the first, then dispatched the Yankees in order, on seven pitches in the second.
“I was just trying to work on everything we’ve been working on in that first inning,” Fulmer said. “Just working on too many things. Trying to change too many things at once, it throws things out of whack. In the second inning, I just said we will work on all that stuff between starts. Right now I need to get the ball down in the zone and pound the strike zone.”
New leadoff hitter?
Harrison, the errant throw aside, had a productive debut. Hitting leadoff in manager Ron Gardenhire’s lineup, he walked twice, singled, and scored once.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It felt good to be back out there.”
Harrison has hit leadoff in 272 games over his career. In 1,191 plate appearances from that spot, he has a .296 batting average, .332 on-base average and a .436 slugging percentage.
“I take pride in it,” he said. “It’s not easy. Some guys don’t like it. But it’s a spot I think I thrive in. I like bringing energy to the team and letting them build from whatever I see from the pitcher.”
It's been a while since the Tigers had a prototypical leadoff hitter.
"He's not afraid to take pitches," Gardenhire said. "I talked with him today and he told me he has a plan. He knows what he likes to do. He likes to see pitches and see more pitches and figure out the strike zone."
Left fielder Christin Stewart, with Yankees Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson in attendance, showed off some light-tower power. He hit a grand slam home run in the third inning, the ball hitting high up on the light tower beyond the right-field wall.
"We know he can hit," Gardenhire said. "We just have to calm him down defensively. We know he's going to be a work in progress. We just have to live with it. He's our left fielder and he's a good one."
... Miguel Cabrera hit an opposite-field, RBI double in the first inning. But a more impressive at-bat came in the second. Against fireballer Albert Abreu, hit turned on a 97-mph fastball and hit it foul. Then he drove a 98-mph heater to the wall in left-center field that was caught.
Still, if there were concerns about his bat speed, that was reason for optimism.
"I don't worry about his swing at all," Gardenhire said. "He's a great hitter. He sees the ball. He takes pitches,close pitches. I was never worried about his swing."
... Shane Greene, Drew VerHagen, Daniel Stumpf and Buck Farmer all pitched a perfect inning in relief. It was the spring debut for Stumpf.
... Center fielder JaCoby Jones was hit in his right hand with a pitch Wednesday. X-rays were negative. He’s not expected to miss any time.
... The grounds crew had to use fans and blowers to dry off the field before the game. Rains overnight had soaked the field. And the tarp, which will be replaced by Thursday, was ripped. Then rains delayed the game for 16 minutes after the fifth inning.
The game was initially postponed, then crew chief Joe West told everyone to hold up. Against the on-field protests of Tigers general manager Al Avila, the game was resumed. But an inning later, the rain started falling again and it was called.